It was fall 2016. Josiah ʻĀkau had responded to a shout out to kōkua a friend in Waimānalo. They needed to add a wheelchair ramp to their home so they could bring their grandfather home from the hospital. Without a ramp to get papa safely into the home, the hospital would have to release him to hospice.
But when ʻĀkau arrived at the house, he found he was the only person who had shown up to help. Disappointed but not discouraged, ʻĀkau, who has a background in construction, went to work. As he was toiling in the front yard of the home, some teenaged boys wandered over to watch him. When ʻĀkau saw the boys, he called out to them and asked if they could kōkua. The boys’ response? They wanted to know how much he was getting paid.
ʻĀkau’s initial reaction was anger. He was not being paid to build the ramp, he was just helping a family in need. It disturbed him that the boys were unwilling to kōkua an elderly neighbor without being paid. And he was upset that their parents hadn’t taught them better.
But after his anger subsided, ʻĀkau had an epiphany.
He thought, maybe they don’t help because they don’t know how. “When you ask kids to jump in on a volleyball or basketball game, if they know how to play, they’re going to jump in,” ʻĀkau reflected. “But if they don’t how to play, then they criticize it or condemn it or make an excuse not to do it.”
ʻĀkau quickly saw a cultural connection and practical application. “Maybe they just need someone to help them connect with their kūpuna; not just with family get-togethers, but with hana (work). We teach our keiki hula, the language and music. These are all beautiful ways to keep our culture going, but where can we incorporate hana to ʻmanatize’ our strengths?”
He was frustrated by a western educational system that does not do enough to emphasize hard work and mālama, and troubled to witness the pain and hopelessness that haunts so many of our youth. He saw an opportunity to change the attitudes and hearts of young people and to break the cycle of hurt, while teaching them valuable life and work skills they can use to earn a living. This seed of an idea, to create a nonprofit that would become a source of training for young Hawaiians, found purchase in rich soil when ʻĀkau founded Kinai ʻEha in March 2017.
Kinai ʻEha means to “extinguish pain.” ʻĀkau’s vision is to provide Hawaiian youth who have slipped through the cracks with a sense of purpose, identity, empowerment and cultural connection. The program embraces youth who society has given up on – some are homeless, estranged from their ʻohana, formerly incarcerated or recovering from addiction – and helps them restore pono to their lives.
Because so many of the students come from backgrounds of extreme hardship, program funds are also used meet some of their basic needs like food and transportation. And when funding runs out, ʻĀkau steps in, using his personal resources including opening his home to youth who need a safe place to live.
The program provides workforce training with construction skills as its foundation. But more than that, it is a “life training” program.
“Some kids don’t need teachers as much as they need coaches or life counselors,” shared ʻĀkau who believes that work provides people with purpose and direction. And because there is always pain in this life, we need to keep working to extinguish that pain and move forward. That is another huge part of Kinai ʻEha’s program: training its students to extinguish the pain in their own lives and beyond that, teaching them how to make pono choices that will not cause pain in the lives of others.
ʻĀkau’s strategy for teaching useful, practical construction skills to the youth at Kinai ʻEha is simple – it gives them value. “Once they have valuable skills, they become significant in our society; they go from zeroes to heroes,” said ʻĀkau emotionally.
A self-described “Professional Kanaka,” ʻĀkau has been a U.S. Army engineer, a general contractor and is now a firefighter. He has served on the Kailua Neighborhood Board and coached a variety of community sports including baseball, soccer, football and paddling. In some ways Kinai ʻEha is the natural overflow of ʻĀkau’s life of community service and volunteering.
Initially, Kinai ʻEha was self-funded by ʻĀkau and existed solely on the strength of his passion to make a difference for Hawaiian youth. But then Kamehameha Schools’ Strategy and Innovation division got wind of the program, and since then has become Kinai ʻEha’s primary source of funding. ʻĀkau has also formed a partnership with the Hawaiʻi Youth Correctional Facility which has allowed Kinai ʻEha to establish a base for its program and training classes on their property.
Now three years in, Kinai ʻEha has helped more than 40 youth, primarily young men, move beyond their trauma, find a sense of purpose, obtain their GEDs and acquire marketable skills that will enable them to live good and productive lives. And while there may be similar programs available, Kinai ʻEha provides a distinctive and unique experience for its students.
“Ours is a 100% organic homegrown program,” ʻĀkau shared. More of an ʻohana than a school or training program, Kinai ʻEha utilizes a “caste” system of sorts that is based on one’s efforts and contributions rather than on one’s birthright. The more students contribute, the more status they have within the program because their contributions of labor and kōkua are, by extension, contributions to the lāhui.
New students in the program begin at the “Kōkua” level and remain there for ten working days. During this phase the focus is on “PAU-Hana” – Punctuality, Attendance, Uniform plus Work. A student who meets expectations for nine days in a row but fails on the tenth, starts from the beginning again. “It’s like a kapu system in a real world scenario,” said ʻĀkau.
Successful completion of the Kōkua level allows students to move to phase two – “Mālama” – where the real work begins. At this level students build basic skills in integrated hands-on classrooms as they work towards phase three, the “Koa” level, where training becomes more focused on the student’s individual career goals.
ʻĀkau has developed creative, proprietary formulas for teaching his students life skills; formulas that incorporate acronyms or numeric systems that make them easy to remember. One example is the D+D=YL equation: Decision + Decision = Your Life.
“There are negative ʻDs’ and positive ʻDs.’ We teach them how to make good decisions,” said ʻĀkau. A concept that ʻĀkau has coined the “Universal Language of Expression” teaches students that a person’s facial expressions and body language never lie; “pain = negative decision = hurt” while “pleasure = positive decision = healing.”
Another example is the “40+56+72=168 Hana System” which sets minimum standards for work in their lives in an effort to develop the students’ work ethic.
“There are 168 hours in each week,” ʻĀkau explained. “40 hours should be the minimum a kanaka works. 56 hours is doctor recommended sleeping time, leaving 72 hours to relax and do whatever you want. We sleep more than we work, so if we aren’t working at least 40 hours a week at a job, then we need to go out and volunteer our time to help others.”
Aloha for their students is the true foundation for the program and the key to Kinai ʻEha’s success. The ultimate goal is to help their students achieve values-focused and purpose-driven lives. “When students come to us, we start with who they are,” said ʻĀkau. “We don’t tell them what is best for them, we help them to figure out what is best for them and to develop their purpose.”
But ʻĀkau has an even bigger vision. He would eventually like to replicate or franchise the program. He also sees the need for a unified effort by likeminded organizations and entities. “We need a cause we can all stand behind,” ʻĀkau emphasized. “And we need puʻuhonua – safe places for our people.”
Returning to the original inspiration for Kinai ʻEha, the desire to connect keiki with kūpuna, ʻĀkau believes that training youth, while helping kūpuna in practical ways through building projects, is a win for everyone.
“If you want to know the state of a nation, look at how they treat their most vulnerable,” said ʻĀkau. “Our lāhui cannot leave people behind. We united for the Mauna. Now we need to do it for our kids.”