Habitat puts substance abuse counselor back on her feet


Varna Nakihei opened a nonprofit residential alcohol and drug treatment program on Moloka‘i in 1996 to give people on her home island a place to recover from addiction.

Now 26 years sober and living on Maui, Nakihei spent some of the early 1990s addicted to drugs and alcohol, living on the street while leaving her children in her parents’ care. When a judge issued a bench warrant for her on Moloka‘i, she fled to O‘ahu. “In Honolulu, when I was living on a beach, I realized in needed really serious help,” said Nakihei, 58. “I was literally done.”

Ho‘omau Ke Ola, a culturally-based treatment program in Wai‘anae, gave Nakihei a new lease on life. An important lesson they imparted was that she was Hawaiian first, before she was an addict. They also understood that a sterile office wasn’t the right environment for her recovery and conducted her counseling sessions while she swam in the ocean, fished or worked a lo‘i. “I found out who I really was and I’m very proud to say I am a Hawaiian and nothing’s going to change that,” she said.

After five or six years, Nakihei returned to Moloka‘i and started a treatment program there. “We needed something on this island, on Moloka‘i, because a lot of us who have a problem with drugs and alcohol have to go off island,” she pointed out. In 1996, she leased land from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and converted a two-story, five-bedroom house into a treatment center. But a job on Kaho‘olawe took her to Maui, where she eventually settled – although not in her own home initially.

Habitat for Humanity Maui helped Nakihei on that front. Despite having a regular paycheck, she wasn‘t earning enough to pay rent. For a year, she and her mo‘opuna, or grandchildren, stayed with various friends and family. After seeking financial assistance from Women Helping Women, Nakihei heard about Habitat for Humanity. She didn’t think much of it at the time, despite passing Habitat’s office every day on her way to work.

“You imagine us Hawaiians, how pa‘akikī we can be, how stubborn and hard-headed,” she said. “Finally after three months something told me, ‘Why don’t you stop? Stop at Habitat. You ain’t got nothing to lose. In fact you’ve lost everything already,’” she told herself. So she let go of her pride and stopped.

“I’m so glad I stopped because when I did the doors just flew open for me,” she said.

After two hours and a lot of paperwork, Nakihei was told she might qualify for one of nine condominium units at Harbor Lights. While initially put off by the neighborhood, she realized, “I no care already. I just need a roof over my head.” Instead of moving into her car, as she thought she might need to do, she moved into a condo eight months later.

“I’ve been here since 2013 and this was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Nakihei. The only thing she misses is a place to work the ‘āina. “Other than that, I’m happy. I have stability. My grandchildren can jump on my bed and I don’t have to (scold) them because it’s somebody else’s house. I can leave dishes in the sink, turn my TV on loud, walk around… you know,” she said, laughing.

“We are so proud of Varna to come all the way from just about homeless to being such a positive impact on so many other lives. She really keeps paying forward,” said Habitat Maui’s Community Relations and Development Director Max Tornai.

Habitat for Humanity Maui stands on the front lines of the affordable housing crisis, working toward the lofty mission of building decent housing and renovating substandard dwellings “so that substandard housing and homelessness are eliminated for Maui and Lāna‘i altogether,” said Tornai.

It’s a daunting proposition, noted Tornai who recently heard people testifying at a meeting in Hāna about 20-25 people living in four bedroom homes. “That is just unacceptable,” he said. “We’re trying to make as much of a dent into that problem as we possibly can.”

Maui doesn’t have much affordable housing, making programs like Habitat critical, particularly in Hawaiian communities. “We’ve built a lot of homes on Hawaiian Homes land,” said Tornai, who noted that homeowner education funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs helps more people to qualify.

Habitat Homeowner Varna Nakihei works with Family Services Manager Sophie Lee during a personalized credit counseling and budgeting session. Photo-Habitat for Humanity Maui

Last year, Habitat Maui celebrated its 20th anniversary as an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. Since starting to build full homes in 2003, the nonprofit organization has built or renovated about 115 homes that provide affordable housing to more than 450 local residents, Tornai said.

Tornai shared the story of a partner family that had been among the hidden homeless – staying with friends and family, not living on the street or in a car. The Habitat homeowner’s son wanted to play Little League but he wasn’t eligible to join a team without an address. By partnering with Habitat and putting in sweat equity, his mom was able to move them into their own home within a year. Her son was able to join a baseball team, which advanced to the Little League World Series championship.

“Now it’s looking like he might be able to get a college scholarship for baseball,” said Tornai. “You don’t know what stability in someone’s housing situation will have in terms of the impact in their lives. It’s amazing.”

Habitat’s impact on Nakihei went much further than a home – and even included a job when a medical condition made it hard for her commute. Recently, Nakihei became general manager of the building she owns a condo in, which has 352 units and more than 1,000 residents.

“I can concentrate on treatment, spend time with my grandchildren in the swimming pool and I no need drive,” she said. “My job is here, I can walk out my backdoor and be at work.”


Habitat for Humanity Maui received a two-year, $120,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to provide a homeowner education and financial literacy training program. The classes help prospective homeowners learn how credit markets work and about the significant ways credit scores affect their lives so they can make informed decisions and achieve financial stability.

Habitat for Humanity Maui homeowner Varna Nakihei said OHA’s funding for the program is attracting more local residents and teaching them to manage a budget and make long-range financial plans.

For more information, call (808) 242-1140 or visit www.habitat-maui.org.