Sciana Nahale, 8, and Schylar Robinson, 10, look over a display that their group He Hawaii Keiki Wahine made, which included journals detailing their six-week experience with the Lea Lea Na Opio summer fun program offered by Kealakehe Community Association. (Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Cole Huihui-Wilton and Daniel Jelsma with other members of their group, The Ninjas, perform in a martial arts/hip hop dance routine they worked on during the Lea Lea Na Opio summer fun program, offered by Kealakehe Community Association. (Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Thalyana Faris, 12, does a hula number she along with four other girls work during the Lea Lea Na Opio summer fun program, offered by Kealakehe Community Association. (Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Thirty children, ages 4 to 17, completed the Lea Lea Na Opio summer fun program, offered by Kealakehe Community Association. They shared what they learned and were recognized for their accomplishments Thursday evening at the Kona International Market. (Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today)
At first glance, Thursday’s ho’ike at Kona International Market looked like a typical youth talent show.
Proud parents eagerly took photos and videos of their child’s moment in front of the audience, as well as cheered or stood up in their seats clapping along with those trying to overcome shyness. Children, ages 4 to 17, used costumes or props and lots of catchy music to mesmerize the energetic crowd with their talents. Their demonstrations included dancing, singing, martial arts, comedy and storytelling. Displays, featuring art and journals, were also scattered around the room for all to see.
As the evening continued, it was evident the ho’ike was more than a chance to show off or enjoy the camaraderie the youth have created over the past six weeks in the Lea Lea Na Opio summer fun program. It gave the 30 children a sense of belonging and pride, as well as an opportunity to show what they were made of and capable of doing.
Lea Lea Na Opio was started 12 years ago by Kealakehe Community Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization striving to ensure a safe community by providing education, enrichment and recreational programs that improve the quality of life for residents. This annual summer fun program tries to cater to children who live in public housing, are from families with financial hardship or face other obstacles and are at risk of falling through the cracks, said Elaine Watai, the association’s community coordinator.
“Some of these kids come from low-income public housing and families that cannot afford to send them off to expensive programs during the summer. Others are not. We don’t really go into their personal information too much, but instead, focus on the fact that these kids need something positive to do over the summer,” she said. “All of them are bright, enthusiastic, wanting to learn and excited about the chance to do something positive in their community. Our program gives kids experiences that will teach them new skills, help them flourish, feel connected to their community and help them become leaders.”
Each student paid $150 to attend the program, which offered cultural activities; martial arts; Youth Crime Watch programs on anti-bullying and substance abuse prevention; art activities; community service; and healthy eating, nutrition and exercise education. They also went on several field trips to Only Us, the association’s kitchen and learning center that provides tasty meals with suggested donations of up to $6.75 while helping those in need of emergency food assistance and offering various community programs, Watai said.
Unlike other programs, older youth are chosen as leaders who help establish the direction, goals and ho’ike skits for each group. They also help build networks of peer-to-peer counseling, as well as assist with creating and organizing activities. Not only does this build confidence, skills and experience, it also builds relationships, connections and understanding, Watai said.
“In the end, I hope they love each other, found commonalities, made new friends and discovered their true potential,” she said. “I hope they take that love home and continue to spread it by assisting others in their family and in the community.”
Kailua-Kona resident Jeremy Gambing, 15, started attending Lea Lea Na Opio when he was in fifth grade, mostly because of his interest in martial arts, Native Hawaiian culture and hula. Gambing decided to stick with it because of “the true community leadership,” which he defined as “when the youth are given a voice, support and the opportunity to get involved.” Over the years, he said the program has helped build his communication and leadership skills — abilities that will be useful when he pursues a career in public and human services.
“The program teaches you a lot, and you leave with a more open view,” Gambing said. “No matter where we are from, who we are, what we do, we are all leaders in one way or another. We all have different strengths, talents and struggles. For me, it’s rewarding to show other kids what they’re capable of.”
During the ho’ike, Gambing charismatically shared stories about each of the groups. For example, a group of “rowdy” boys were named The Ninjas because of their infamous disappearing and reappearing acts while another called The Photographers changed their name after the youngest member, who was just 4 years old, couldn’t pronounce it. That group then became The Guppies after recognizing it had some of the program’s youngest participants and its leader was going to be a freshman in high school.
Kailua-Kona resident Dillon Watai, 14, thinks Lea Lea Na Opio is important because it gives children “something fun to do over the summer, teaches things like respect and leadership, and keeps everyone away from any possible trouble.”
The best part, he said, was more than just learning what’s right and wrong; it’s learning from those around you and contributing.