Kalihi Valley, a neighborhood community of Honolulu, has been the first home for new immigrants coming to Hawaii for the last 150 years, according to David Derauf, Executive Director for Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services (KKV). And KKV has been greeting them for many decades. “We’re a federally qualified health center,” David said. “But we’re a community health center first and foremost, and we’ve been discovering that we are, even more importantly, a center for community health.”
Kalihi ValleyKKV was founded 40 years ago by a group of clergy from different faiths who saw a tremendous need for the immigrant population. They crafted a mission “to be an agent for healing and reconciliation” and, as David said, “that was prophetic.” The first four staff were women who knocked on doors, getting to know their neighbors in order to hear and respond to their concerns. Medical and dental services were highly expressed needs, so KKV began providing them within the first several years. Over time, KKV, like most other health centers, became increasingly focused on medical services to provide affordable access to health care.
KKV began to circle back to its roots in 2003 when it was selected to serve as a lead agency for an Active Living by Design grant, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative that supported comprehensive approaches to increase physical activity in 25 diverse communities throughout the nation. “This grant was a catalyst for us to begin to revisit the other roles a community health center plays,” David said.
It took some trial and error to find the way. In the early stages of the grant, leaders talked with a group of Micronesian women in a diabetes support group about the need to exercise. That approach gained no traction at all and it was later learned that the concept and word for “exercise” didn’t even exist in their culture. Timing was such that KKV had just gained a long term lease for 100 acres of state land to develop a nature park in the back of Kalihi Valley. Seizing this opportunity, the group leader asked the women if they’d be interested in gardening, and hands shot up. They understood this word perfectly; it was what they did in their homeland. “Within days, women had machetes and were clearing invasive bamboo by hand in order to plant their first gardens on the land.”
“We were able to study the changes that took place with their diabetes and showed measurable health improvements,” David said. “Yes, they burned more calories, but just as important was their pride in putting food on their table and how much they, themselves, had grown.”
The program is named Ho`oulu `Aina, which in Hawaiian means “to grow the land” or “to be grown by the land.” Both meanings are evident there today as the number of gardens, gardeners, and volunteers has also grown. Today, there are at least 50 active collaboratives. More than 11,000 volunteers have been involved over time in working on reforestation efforts, restoration of traditional Hawaiian archaeological sites (including living agricultural sites), and engaging in large scale composting to restore the soil, which was stripped by a couple of nurseries over 30 or 40 years of use. They are truly growing the land through work grounded in native Hawaiian values, building upon generations of wisdom, and moving toward a healthier tomorrow.
And they are being grown by the land as individuals, families, and a community. Every Wednesday morning, women meet for cultural sharing and gardening. Nursing students from the University of Hawaii, women just out of prison for substance abuse issues, mothers, and children from nearby public housing work side-by-side in the garden and build friendships. “It’s a nice, organic mixture of people who are discovering each other’s capacities and rediscovering the power of community in the process,” David said. And stories emerge that verify the strength of this work. During a recent exchange, one woman talked about having suffered terrible depression over the last 20 years, often unable to leave her home. After gardening at Ho`oulu `Aina for a while, she said she has entire days when she isn’t lost in herself, realizes what she has to give to others and experiences moments of joy for the first time in her life.
In addition to the gardens, KKV’s Active Living by Design program established the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange (K-VIBE), a nonprofit bicycle education program that promotes bicycle-related activities for the youth of Kalihi Valley. People donate bikes, and youth learn how to repair and rehab bicycles and can earn a bike for themselves. At first, it wasn’t popular since biking wasn’t seen as being “cool.” But by connecting with bike clubs and college students, drawing in bike couriers, racers and trick bike riders, the cool factor has risen dramatically. Since 2005, K-VIBE has provided nearly 3,000 youth with transportation and recreation through an earned bicycle. Some youth were ready to drop out of high school when they showed up at K-VIBE, but have gone on to take jobs in the bike industry or other venues and come back to volunteer. Youth also advocate for better bike facilities, infrastructure and government policy, and successfully advocated for an amendment to the City Charter that prioritized efforts for Honolulu to become a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city.
Clearly, recent immigrants and those who arrived decades ago are finding a new sense of place in Kalihi Valley as this work evolves. And the transformation has also touched KKV. “This grant put us on a path to grow our voice as an organization as well,” David said. “To unplug our ears and really listen to the stories of the community like we did at the inception of our organization. Collaboration has become more than a word on paper. To CO-llaborate…to gather, get dirty, sweat, and share food together, that’s the essence of the word. And that’s what’s happening here now.”