A futuristic biometric scanner greets visitors as they cross the threshold into a newly refurbished gathering place that contributors to the Pālolo ʻOhana Learning Center hope will lead to a brighter and more hopeful future for the current residents of Pālolo Valley Homes.
A space in the community’s administration building, untouched since 1957, was completely gutted, remodeled and transformed into a state-of-the-art learning center for residents of all ages, thanks to a grant received by Kapiʻolani Community College from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Just beyond the entrance is a public health nursing room, where residents will be able to obtain health services including consultations, exams and referrals. A few steps farther lies a demonstration kitchen, with shiny new modern appliances waiting to be used for cooking classes and healthy cooking demonstrations.
A large assembly area with a 65-inch flat screen TV, a surround sound system and a portable stage can be used by residents for gatherings and town meetings. A children’s area will soon be full of toys and books to keep them busy.
The highlight of the renovations lies beyond the assembly area—a computer lab and digital video and audio editing room. The computer lab is equipped with 35 new computers hooked up and ready for Pālolo Valley Homes residents to use, complete with Internet connectivity provided courtesy of Oceanic Time Warner Cable, and green technology features to reduce energy consumption.
The digital video and audio editing room is soundproof and includes three computers with the latest video editing, animation and recording software that will allow residents to let their creativity run wild.
The new computer lab is a far cry from what Kapiʻolani Community College students and faculty had to work with when they first stepped foot in Pālolo Valley more than a decade ago.
“We started with one computer, a broken scanner and dial-up Internet,” says Judith Kirkpatrick, a professor of English at Kapiʻolani and manager of the Hale. “It was fun,” she laughed.
A little blue house in the middle of Pālolo Valley Homes, the Hale housed computers scrounged from the college that were no longer needed and depended on service learning students and resident volunteers to open the lab and supervise those who used it.
The human touch
The “geeks,” as they’re affectionately called, provided supervision during lab hours and tutoring services. They also repaired the computers when they broke, using donated spare parts amassed by Kirkpatrick.
“It was an amazing and eye-opening experience,” says Joshua Strickland, a former Kapiʻolani student who participated in the service learning program.
Strickland is now a chief business consultant for Acacia Technologies. Through his company, Strickland helped design and equip the new learning center and will help ensure that it operates smoothly with the assistance of a core group of technology-savvy Kapiʻolani students.
“I never realized how much I was going to get out of it,” says Strickland.
“The experience can really change the way a university student looks at the world,” continues Kirkpatrick.
It was Kirkpatrick’s commitment and Kapiʻolani Community College’s continued support that helped the Hale flourish and earned the trust of Pālolo Valley Homes’ residents and Mutual Housing Association of Hawaiʻi, the community’s owner. The partnership convinced other funders that the technology center was filling a critical need and deserved additional resources.
“Our residents had seen organizations leave the community if there was no funding,” says Dahlia Asuega, a longtime community resident and Mutual Housing’s resident services manager. “But Kapiʻolani Community College was committed to running the center whether there was money or not. That made our relationship more of a friendship than a partnership.”
A team effort
When Kapiʻolani first came to Pālolo Valley Homes 14 years ago, its initial goal was to provide reading and computer literacy programs to a diverse community that includes Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and recent immigrants from Samoa, Tonga and Micronesia.
Before long, however, Kapiʻolani and Mutual Housing were working together to create an educational pipeline that has already sent 52 residents to college.
Service learning students played a critical role in helping the college create that pipeline. Now, students, faculty and staff from Kapiʻolani are joined by service learning students and staff from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Chaminade University of Honolulu in what is called the Pālolo Pipeline Program.
They work together to provide tutoring services at the public schools that Pālolo youngsters attend and computer training, health services and other workshops for residents of all ages.
The tutors have enjoyed measurable success at Pālolo Elementary School, which was forced into a No Child Left Behind restructuring process four years ago due to poor test scores.
The restructuring ended in 2007, when the percentage of third-grade students reading on grade level rose from 23 to 48 percent. One year later, 52 percent of these students were reading at grade level as 4th graders
“We played a part in that improvement,” says Robert Franco, Kapiʻolani Community College’s director of planning, grants and civic engagement.
“Before the partnership began, college was not an option most residents considered possible,” says Asuega. “The college students interacting with our young residents are showing them, by example, that attending college is an achievable and worthwhile goal.”
Public housing communities in Honolulu often are the places where immigrants first arrive in Hawaiʻi from the Pacific Islands and Asia,” says Franco. “We are trying to make sure that communities like Pālolo Valley Homes are not dead ends for these residents. Instead, we want to make these communities launching pads to higher education.”
The Pālolo ʻOhana Learning Center is a critical component in this effort.
Kapiʻolani plans to expand on current Pālolo Pipeline Program activities and use the Pālolo ʻOhana Learning Center to sponsor a variety of programs requested by residents, including English language classes for adults, job training for certified nursing assistants, college preparatory courses, computer literacy classes and a creativity academy where young people will learn computer animation.
Speaking at the centerʻs blessing and grand opening, Pālolo Valley Homes resident Stephen Maybir called it a “new beginning and a new journey for us.”
The 22 year old works as a service member for AmeriCorps VISTA and looks forward to attending Kapiʻolani Community College one day soon.
“This has truly been a labor of love and hard work. The residents have been involved in all aspects of the renovation and design of the center, coming together to effect change within their lives and community,” he said.
“This learning center will provide a roof over their heads for activities, education and recreation. It is a link to strengthen individual connections to the past and towards the future, helping our community to thrive and move past the stigma associated with our name.”
Asuega agrees. “For us it is not just a learning center, it is an opportunity to succeed.”