Building the Lāhui

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Executive Director Lawaiʻa Naihe is honoring his late father by serving Native Hawaiians through the Hoʻākeolapono Trades Academy and Institute

Photo: Lawaiʻa Naihe
Lawaiʻa Naihe – Courtesy Photos

“E hana mua a paʻa ke kahua ma mua o ke aʻo ʻana aku iā haʻi;
Build yourself a firm foundation before teaching others.”

It’s hard not to like Lawaiʻa Naihe, but he says it wasn’t always that way.

“Growing up, I was just hard head,” he said. “I had a rough childhood, and I was a troubled kid. I didn’t listen and didn’t do my work. I was labeled as a troublemaker and put into special education.

“Teachers said I was just too much and they didn’t want to work with me. I was always getting kicked out of class. I couldn’t read very well and I barely graduated from high school.”

But there was one thing that gave Naihe hope. He was big, he was strong and he was athletic.

“Football was the one thing that made me consider that I might have a chance to go to college. When a coach starts telling you that you have a chance to go if you get your grades right, you start taking that seriously. Football was my hope, and I took it seriously. But I was still struggling,” he said.

After playing for Waiākea High School and then graduating from Kapaʻa High School, Naihe entered the workforce. He spent a year as a corrections officer and another three years working construction, starting with masonry, framing and roofing.

Although he had a knack for construction, at the urging of a cousin he applied for college and started playing for Montana Western, eventually receiving a Division 1 scholarship to Weber State where he earned a teaching degree in history. He was a good enough player that the Baltimore Ravens invited him to a tryout.

“The best part about starting college late was that I was able to build other skills and develop an identity. Before college, I was already mentoring kids coaching football. Knowing from my own experience how hard life can be, I was always trying to help these kids to get better,” Naihe said.

“Working in corrections as well, we’d go from coaching some of these kids in football to them coming to jail. I was like ʻHow can we keep these kids out of jail? How can we do this?’”

Naihe said those experiences helped shift his life.

His goal was to become a teacher and work with special education kids. He started his educational career in Utah, moved home to teach at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School where he excelled at working with students with behavioral issues, and eventually became the vice principal of Kanuikapono Public Charter School.

In July 2021, Naihe left Kanuikapono to found the Hoʻākeolapono Trades Academy and Institute. The academy features three programs, a High School program that focuses on students in grades 9-12; an all-female Nā Wāhine program for adult and high school-aged females; and the Workforce program, an internship program for young adults age 17 to 24.

Photo: Hoʻākeolapono interns with Lawaiʻa
Hoʻākeolapono interns with Lawaiʻa (top row back) and Mahiʻai Naihe (third row far right).

In three short years, Hoʻākeolapono has already served some 200 young learners. The organization is in essence a construction immersion program, taking a holistic approach to teaching trades and exposing students to all facets of construction including a general introduction to carpentry, electrical work, OSHA safety certification, site surveying and more.

A $400,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) supports the nonprofit’s workforce development program, which offers paid 12-week construction internships and supplies students with hand tools, tool belts, drills, hardhats, safety vests and even steel-toed shoes.

“Our mission statement is to cultivate Hawaiʻi’s workforce,” Naihe said. “Hoʻākeolapono means to ignite or spark hope. My hope was football. Football was the catalyst that allowed me to graduate from college. But only a few can go to college and get a scholarship.

Photo: Interns construct a ramp to aid Anahola kūpuna
Interns construct a ramp to aid Anahola kūpuna.

“But literally anybody can work in construction. There’s permitting work, architectural drawings, they need drivers, operating engineers, carpenters, painters, roofers – and the only way we can build that house efficiently is if everybody works together as a team. That is where our success comes from, and that is what sparks my happiness, because with the right team anything is possible.”

“Like many of our OHA grantees, Lawaiʻa’s commitment to support his community and its needs is incredible,” said OHA Grants Officer Ahia Dye. “He is passion-driven when designing these high-quality educational and career supports and his program reinforces and expands the skills and capabilities of its haumāna with respect to their wellbeing, self-sufficiency and employment readiness.”

Rachelle “Rae” Nam is the executive director of Kūkulu Kumuhana O Anahola and her nonprofit has teamed up with Naihe’s group to serve Anahola kūpuna.

Nam said Naihe’s construction team recently built a ramp for a husband and wife who had been hospitalized and could no longer climb the stairs to their house. In another instance, his workers installed a walk-in shower for a kupuna who was having difficulty getting into and out of her bathtub.

Nam said Naihe used the projects as learning opportunities for his students, and provided the funds so the kūpuna would not have to worry about it.

“Lawaiʻa is always the guy boosting you up and not pulling you down,” she said. “He is skilled professionally, he’s willing to share his expertise with the next generation and he’s selective in choosing who can best mentor them. He loves this community so much and he’s such a valuable team player in Anahola and all of Kauaʻi, offering skills development to our youth.”

Ask Naihe who has motivated him, and his brother Mahiʻai Naihe – another former athlete – is front and center.

“Life is not as hard when you have a good older brother,” Naihe said. “When I was younger, he was the one who was able to take those blows away for me. Anything that I’ve ever done successfully, he has been directly involved.”

Mahiʻai Naihe has been with the nonprofit since its inception and currently serves as the group’s safety coordinator.

But the inspiration for the Hoʻākeolapono Trades Academy and Institute was Naihe’s father, Charles Naihe, a pivotal member of the Hawaiian community who spent more than 25 years working for the Department of Corrections.

“I’m here because of my brother, but I’m doing what I’m doing today because of my dad and because he was Hawaiian. Before I went [to college] he told me ʻLawaiʻa, how cool is this? You have an opportunity to go to college, so why don’t you go? But you’ve got to go and learn, and then come back and help Hawaiians.’

“My dad always wanted to help Hawaiians, but he barely graduated high school himself. He retired as a commander here on Kauaʻi, and I know that he always tried to help Hawaiians who were in those jails.”

In August of 2020, Charles Naihe broke the news to his sons that he had liver cancer. His case was terminal.

“At this same time I was getting this news that our Native Hawaiian students were dropping out and failing. So I told my dad, give me two years and I’ll show you before you die that I will do everything I can to help other Hawaiians.”

Naihe founded his nonprofit in July 2021, and his father passed away in 2022.

“It took him to get cancer for me to really focus. I’m so very grateful that I had those two years, because he could see what I wanted to do for him. He was very proud of me, and I hope I’ve kind of made up for being such a bad kid,” Naihe said.

Today, Naihe said he is right where he is supposed to be.

His nonprofit now has support not only from OHA but also from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Liliʻuokalani Trust, Hawaiʻi Small Business Development Center, Kauaʻi Chamber of Commerce, Historic Hawaiʻi Foundation, Leadership Kauaʻi and a host of others.

“You know what’s been most rewarding?” Naihe asked. “Every single thing every single day. I feel happy all the time; this is exactly what I wanted to do. I get to work with kids and we get to help mold them.

“We are a Native Hawaiian organization. Our goal is to help Native Hawaiians. I am a Native Hawaiian and that is my number one goal. Everything else is a byproduct of that.”