Kai (not his real name) did not have a typical childhood. He started going in and out of foster homes from the age of five, suffered severe abuse and neglect, and was diagnosed with a myriad of emotional challenges and learning disabilities.
When he was 16 years old, he was living in a boys’ shelter far from his previous home, and his social worker felt the neighborhood high school would not be safe for him physically or emotionally. As an alternative, he began receiving one-to-one tutoring for all of his courses at the ʻImi ʻIke Learning Center in Waipiʻo, a project of the EPIC Foundation (see sidebar). By the end of summer, he had earned enough credits to advance to the 11th grade.
During his junior year, however, Kai had to adjust to both living in a new foster home and attending school in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The classes were difficult, and he had to work extra hard, with help from his ʻImi ʻIke tutors, to complete the assignments. Socially, he struggled to fit in. Most of all, he yearned for his birth family and worried about his and their future.
Kai’s journey was fraught with turmoil and disruptions. There were times the obstacles were so great, he would break down during tutoring sessions. But he remained focused on his goal: obtaining a high school diploma.
In 2019, two years after Kai first came through ʻImi ʻIke’s doors, he graduated on time with his class. It was a joyful, inspirational achievement for him and his tutors.
Kai is currently employed and living independently. He recently resumed tutoring services at ʻImi ʻIke to hone his reading and writing skills in preparation for community college enrollment. One day, he hopes to teach English as a Second Language and to support other students who are facing personal and academic challenges.
According to Project Director Christine Miyamura, ʻImi ʻIke, which the EPIC Foundation launched in 2006, has played a key role in many success stories like Kai’s. In addition to Waipiʻo, it operates learning centers in Hilo and Mōʻiliʻili for haumāna, kindergarten through high school, who are currently or have been in foster, kith or kinship care or residential or treatment facilities. Referrals come from numerous sources, including social workers, resource caregivers, court-appointed guardians, school teachers and counselors, foster-care agencies and organizations serving Native Hawaiian youth and families.
ʻImi ʻIke’s offerings reflect a Hawaiian culture-based worldview and are designed to be experiential, hands-on and place-based. They include in-person huakaʻi (field trips) and tutoring and workshops, which are available both in person and virtually. Tutoring is one-to-one or in small groups and is individualized to meet the needs of each student. Haumāna are encouraged to participate in all-day, in-person academic and enrichment camps during school intersessions. Activities there have included art, stamping, writing, coding, magic, ʻike ʻōlelo and engineering (curriculum from the Boston Museum of Science is used for engineering classes). Kumu have also shared their knowledge about the Kumulipo, makahiki, traditional foods and native plants and birds.
“We don’t just focus on academics, which is why we provide programs that have an element of fun,” said Miyamura, who worked as a special education teacher at a public elementary school prior to joining the EPIC Foundation.
“We realize many of our students have traumatic backgrounds — including abuse, neglect and exposure to drugs in utero — and as a result struggle with serious emotional, psychological and physical challenges as well as learning disabilities. They have multiple needs that we have to address; otherwise, academics can’t be a priority for them. We try to stabilize their situation and find ways to excite them about learning.”
The EPIC Foundation has received a two-year, $180,000 OHA grant that supports the participation of 100 Native Hawaiian students in the ʻImi ʻIke Learning Centers’ educational programs. Forty students are currently enrolled, so there’s space to accommodate 60 more. For the first semester of the 2022-2023 school year, 10 out of those 40 students achieved at least a 3.0 grade point average; one earned a 4.0.
“These accomplishments are especially significant because of their challenges,” Miyamura said. “Seeing these kids make even small gains is inspiring. When they realize they can reach their goals if they work hard, they’re so proud, happy and motivated; it’s a turning point for them. Every child has the potential to succeed.”