Up-and-coming Sony executive Minako Ishii (MA ’07 Mānoa) and blond Michigan football player Jeffrey “Rusty” Kent (MA ’08 Mānoa) arrived independently at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, each looking for something different. They discovered each other…and a mutual desire to help underprivileged kids. The result is Lei Fund, a project that helps disadvantaged children discover their own creativity and imagine a better future.
Picturing the future
While studying at Keio University in Japan, Minako raced sailboats. “I was always on the water, seeing beautiful scenes, and I wanted to capture it,” she recalls. Later she came across a beautiful picture book of Shonan, the area where she practiced sailing, and wrote to the photographer, Shigeru Taguchi, to tell him how much she admired his work.
“He became my mentor. He actually lent me a camera,” she says. She studied with him about four years and attended a photography school for about 6 months until Sony transferred her to Miami.
“I kept taking pictures,” she says. And she learned to surf. Freelancing for a Japanese kite surfing magazine, she continued to practice and learn about photography. In 2005, she decided to move to Haleʻiwa on Hawaiʻi’s famed North Shore to begin her photography career.
“She was a senior business analyst. Literally, she had a penthouse apartment on South Beach, paid for by Sony,” interjects Rusty. “When I met her, she was living in a basement on the North Shore.” They both burst into laughter. “That’s when I REALLY fell in love with her.”
“I realized, maybe it’s better to spend time and money on something you can do for the community, rather than making a profit for the company,” says Minako.
Initially she photographed events and made stock photos, slowly building her business by word-of-mouth. Now she mostly does editorial and commercial work for magazines.
In 2005 she began UH Mānoa’s communication master’s program.
A self-proclaimed ski bum, Rusty pocketed his BA in film from Montana State University and decided to “try something in life that I had never done before, and not really care if I was good or bad at it, as long as I enjoyed it.”
He moved to Hawaiʻi in 1999, landed a job with the Triple Crown of Surfing and found a great teacher in surf legend and Triple Crown Executive Director Randy Rarick. He set off for an around-the-world surfing adventure, but the trip was cut short by a visa snafu in South Africa.
Within a month after retuning to Hawaiʻi, he contracted Epstein-Barr virus. Funds depleted he was in dire straits. A kind family on the North Shore took him in.
“Kimo and Vickie Lyman allowed me to stay with them and took care of me—three months bedridden and the next three months I had very little energy,” he says.
Once he regained his strength, he worked hard at odd jobs, scraping together enough money to buy a car and saving to go back to school.
He met Minako at the master’s program orientation for UH Mānoa’s School of Communications.
“I tricked her into going surfing with me,” he admits. Minako laughs. He asked all the orientation participants for their phone numbers on the pretext of organizing a party. “But I just called one of ’em,” he says wryly.
Both burst into laughter again. “I had no idea!” Minako chimes in. They went surfing and began carpooling to class. A romance—and a partnership—began to blossom.
Touched by an Angel
Minako’s master’s thesis, on how kids think visually, was a case study of first-, third- and fifth-grade students at Waikīkī Elementary. She gave the children Polaroid cameras and a few photography basics, then sent them out to capture their world.
She was interested in how age their differences influenced their images. First graders took pictures of their parents and siblings. The circle widened to friends and teachers and then, when they got older, activities and other subjects.
She recalls a very eager and serious fifth grader named Angel. While other children snapped quick pictures, Angel took a long time to compose her shot.
“She came up with this beautiful piece—it was like a special kind of art,” Minako says. She couldn’t even figure out what the picture was. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ And I lost my words. I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. It turned out to be the inside of a playground slide, the little cone, on the top.”
“Only kids would be able to take that picture,” adds Rusty.
Reflecting on Angel’s creativity, Minako began to consider how disadvantaged children might experience different things by taking pictures. She and Rusty sought an organization they could partner with to set up Kid’s Pics classes. They settled on Catholic Charities Hawaiʻi Māʻili Land Transitional Housing Program in Waiʻanae and began conducting classes at the shelter.
A wedding of ideas
Along the way, Minako had produced the picture book, Girl’s Day/Boy’s Day (Bess Press).
Contracted by the City and County of Honolulu to photograph its annual Lei Day celebration, she had accumulated a lot of stock photos. She was urged to do a book on May Day/Lei Day, but was reluctant because she hadn’t enjoyed the writing.
She coaxed Rusty, a good writer who had edited things for her in the past, to be the author. He hesitated, feeling like an outsider writing about a local tradition. But when he realized the May Day half of the book related to his English heritage, he felt more comfortable taking on the project.
His research for the book unearthed major inspirations for the Lei Fund project. He learned that The Queen’s Medical Center was established through the humble fundraising efforts of Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. He read a 1928 quote from Emma Ahuena Taylor in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin archives: “The lei meant a great deal to old Hawaiʻi. The favorite child in the home was called a lei.”
He suggested selling photographs from the Māʻili Land Kid’s Pics classes in conjunction with Lei Day to raise money for a “lei fund”—a scholarship endowment to help children from transitional housing pursue higher education. “I thought, wow, it’d be really neat if we had this holiday right here about service learning. I mean, it’s a perfect holiday about giving.”
It was also the perfect holiday for a wedding. “It all kind of happened together,” he says, “and it all ties in, actually.”
On Thursday, May 1, 2008, May Day/Lei Day was released. On Friday Minako and Rusty held their first Kid’s Pics photo exhibition. Saturday was the rehearsal dinner, and Sunday, the wedding.
“We were pretty crazy,” says Rusty. He and Minako burst into laughter again.
The wedding itself was a fundraiser for the Lei Fund. “We were both older so we didn’t really want presents because we don’t need a lot of stuff,” explains Rusty. “We wanted to do something special for our wedding. We wanted to have people donate to something.” Wedding gifts helped establish the Lei Fund.
By then they had done three classes at Māʻili Land, and they invited the kids and their families to the wedding.
Each one teach one
This year the program took on additional life as a service learning class at Chaminade University, where Rusty now teaches Photography in Education.
After a couple of weeks learning photography principles and techniques, the college students spent every Saturday morning at Māʻili Land, partnered with 7- to 13-year-olds. They taught the Waiʻanae kids how to shoot photos, then turned them loose with the school’s Nikon cameras. (The Alexander & Baldwin Foundation recently announced a $5,000 grant to buy camera equipment.)
“It’s been a wonderfully rich opportunity for our communication students,” says Candice Sakuda (BA ’00 Mānoa), director of the Chaminade Service-Learning program.
“It doesn’t even feel like a class! You’re hanging out with kids, so you can be a kid yourself,” observes Ashlee Duenas, who participated last spring.
They went to the botanical gardens at Lyon Arboretum, the Hawaiʻi State Art Museum, Hoʻolauleʻa at Kamehameha Schools and Bishop Museum, taking pictures all day, the Kents springing for fuel and lunch.
When they’d arrive, Bernard, the youngest Māʻili participant, would run around the complex, shouting ‘C’mon! They’re here! It’s time to leave!‘ Duenas recalls. When it was time to go home, he was uncharacteristically sad.
“Some days I wouldn’t get home until 8 or 9 o’clock, and I would just drop. After the class ended, I would still wake up on Saturday at 5 in the morning, ready to go pick up the kids. My Saturdays felt super bare then,” reflects Duenas. “It was totally worth it. I’d do it a million times over.”
The sky is the limit
The Kents are expecting their first child in August. They will continue teaching the Chaminade course and sell greeting cards and original photographs online for the Lei Fund. They have raised about $8,700 to date.
One of the main goals of Kid’s Pics is to show the children—and their parents—how talented the young photographers are, Rusty says. “One kid, his dad almost started crying when he saw his son’s pictures, and he was like, ‘I had no idea he was this talented.’ And this is a guy who wouldn’t cry.”
Somebody just needs to give these kids a chance in life, Rusty says, recalling his own brush with being penniless, sick and essentially homeless.
“It was through this great humbling experience that I realized I wanted to be one of those people who does not give these kids a hand out, but rather a hand up. Because in the end they are like all children, really talented and special and, I really believe, if given the tools and the teaching and the love and opportunities, the sky is the limit for them.”
View Minako Kent’s work
View additional Kid’s Pics photos taken by Māʻili Land photographers and their college student mentors