Keiki O Ka `Āina Family Learning Centers, deep in Kalihi Valley

I had the opportunity to visit an organization located deep in Kalihi Valley called Keiki O Ka `Āina Family Learning Centers. KOKA is a non profit organization that was established in 1996 for the benefit of parents and preschool children aged 0-5 of Native Hawaiian communities. KOKA develops and educates families through culturally appropriate “new” Native Hawaiian programs emphasizing literacy and mental wellness.

The name of the organization means “Children of the Land” in the Hawaiian language and truly reflects the Hawaiian value that children are our future. I have this book called “A Little Book of Aloha” by Renata Provenzano. It is full of Hawaiian proverbs and inspirational wisdom. It says, “Traditionally, a bowl of poi sits in the center of the kitchen table in Hawaiian homes. Children are taught to only take from the center of the bowl of poi and never scrape the sides of the bowl. Perhaps this teaches children the principle to always take the best of what is offered to them in life.” And that is exactly what KOKA exists for, to give keiki the best in early childhood development so that they will be prepared with the proper attitude and skills for school and a successful future.

I can truly relate to the Hawaiian value of giving priority to our children. Other cultures display similar values. There is the book written by Dennis M. Ogawa called “Kodomo No Tame Ni-For the Sake of the Children: The Japanese American Experience in Hawaii.” This book clearly explains the importance of children from a Japanese perspective.

KOKA believes in building strong communities by building strong families, confident families that can take care of themselves. And they do this through emphasis on educating and supporting parents so that they may be their child’s first and best teacher. This enables families to flourish and become leaders in their communities. The foundation of KOKA’s program is the Hawaiian language, traditions and culture. The organization services over 2,000 children and parents at 40 different sites in Oahu and Maui.

Momi Akana (center, with Leilani and Earl) is the founder and Executive Director of KOKA. She is a beautiful person inside and out. She started her program with very little. As a single mother on welfare, Momi used her food stamps to buy snacks for the children and used her own home to develop her programs. With the support of many people and federal grants, KOKA was able to expand their programs and purchase land for a new center. A wonderful blessing was having the popular television program "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" select KOKA as their Hawaii project in 2007 during their 50 state tour. It is wonderful how hundreds of local companies and thousands of volunteers joined together in building a large plantation style home and an office building in seven days. What an amazing feat!

One of the special features of KOKA is their Outdoor Classroom. At the center of this outdoor classroom is a natural spring that supplies the taro patch (loi) with water. More than 1000 Native Hawaiian plants have been planted in this area including banana, kukui, ilima, pikake, gardenia, aloe and sweet potatoes. A medicinal plant that caught my eye was a hearty ginger plant (awapuhi) that felt like a rubbery sponge full of liquid. You squish it and the slimy juice just oozes out. It has a clean refreshing smell. I rubbed it all over my hands thinking that it will get sticky but to my surprise the liquid disappeared leaving my hands very soft. I have been told that this plant is used to make shampoo and conditioner. You can even drink it. The plant is also used to cure stomach aches and toothaches. Wow!

This outdoor classroom will teach keiki and families about the method, value and cultural significance of Native Hawaiian plants. They will learn how to take care of and use these medicinal plants as well as make leis from the Hawaiian flowers. The goal is to carry on these traditions at each family’s homes and yards thus perpetuating the Hawaiian culture.

So much is happening at Keiki O Ka `Āina. The dedicated staff of gifted educators and workers use this place as a home base to work every day to serve the needs of the keiki of Hawaii. It’s also a wonderful place for the Native Hawaiian community and those like us who appreciate Hawaiian culture. Aloha!

Honolulu Festival

Keiki O Ka `Āina

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