Struggle in Paradise

Print More

Lihu’e, Hawaii—Anyone trying to escape from what counts as civilization in most of the United States these days would be hard-pressed to find a better spot than this postcard island of cascading waterfalls and coconut trees. So pristine are parts of Kaua’i (“the fountainhead of waters”) that when movie-makers needed to film “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they came here.

Mary Lou Barela arrived in 1974 to destroy some of that.

At least that’s how the locals saw it when her employer, a San Diego-based resort developer, sent Barela to win them over to its plans to build hotels on the beaches.

Barela lets out a girl-like giggle when she thinks about it now: “The people at that time were anti-development. In this climate, the developer chose to pull out.

“But I chose to stay.”

That’s a good thing for the youth development field on Kaua’i, where the landscape’s attractiveness creates obstacles for kids and the agencies that serve them. An invasion of wealthy mainland retirees to new, pricey developments in recent years has coincided with increased teen joblessness, homelessness and runaways, which locals link to the loss of sugar and pineapple plantations and a slow rebuilding effort after Hurricane ’Iniki’s violent visit in 1992.

Helping youth overcome those obstacles is the mission of Hale ’Opio (“Home of Youth”), run by the transplanted New Mexican real-estate developer-turned-youth-developer. The 27-year-old nonprofit rides out shifting economic and social tides to expand services for children affected by social displacement and stressed (often substance-abusing) families.

The particular challenges of growing up here gained prominence in the social research field decades ago through the Kaua’i Longitudinal Study – an ongoing project that began tracking all 600 infants born on this island in 1955, focusing on perinatal stress, family environment and resilience.

Among the books on this groundbreaking study are “The Children of Kaua’i” (1971), “Kaua’i’s Children Come of Age” (1977), “Vulnerable but Invincible” (1989) and “Overcoming the Odds” (1992). One co-author of the second book, Ruth Smith, was a founding member of the Hale ’Opio board of directors.

‘Come Home’

Kaua’i – with three high schools, two hospitals and a community college within its 558 square miles – is part of Kaua’i County, the least populated (58,463) and least developed of Hawaii’s four counties.

In “Overcoming the Odds,” University of California-Davis Professor Emerita Emmy Werner, one of those in charge of the study, wrote, “The men and women whose lives we followed from birth to ages 1, 2, 10, 18 ... are a mixture of ethnic groups – most are of Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian descent. Most members of this cohort were raised by parents who were semi- or unskilled laborers, and who had not graduated from high school.”

Clara Tolbe-Mackler, who jokingly refers to herself as a “specimen,” was an original study participant as she was being carried in her mother’s womb. Now 47, she is a social worker at the Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center on Kaua’i and offers a perspective on island youth lifestyles, then and now.

“We lived on a sugar plantation in subsidized housing and received medical and dental care in our community for nominal payments,” she recalls. “But today, with the plantations gone, family members must work two and three jobs to pay rent and buy food. Medical care is often out of the question.”

Barela saw the start of those changes when she arrived in the mid-’70s. She found an economy moving from plantation agriculture to tourism, and an influx of “coastal haoles,” or newcomers, as transplanted mainlanders are known.

These changes have contributed to new kinds of stress for families and youth.

“Jobs are hard for kids to find here,” says Sharon Agnew, Kaua’i County youth programs coordinator. “Adults – working as grocery store bag boys and girls and stock clerks – are doing what the teens used to do.”

While the county does not compile unemployment figures for youth, overall unemployment is 6.2 percent, well above the rates for the more affluent Honolulu (4.3 percent) and Maui (4.5 percent).

Poverty is rising island-wide. According to the Census Bureau, the number of families to reach poverty levels on Kaua’i has doubled since 1990, from 631 to 1,224. The number of individuals in poverty has climbed from 3,640 to 6,085 – approximately 11 percent of the population.

“When economic times are hard, the stress level increases in families, many become dysfunctional, and more youth need our services,” Barela says.

Those services – for about 300 youths, ages 4 to 17 – have evolved to include two teen group homes, foster care programs, a teen court, home-based counseling, an emergency shelter program and substance abuse education.

But luring staff for these services is especially difficult here because of the cost of living and geographic isolation. Although Hale ’Opio has an operating budget of $2.6 million (mostly through state contracts), youth worker salaries are typically low.

“We pay eight bucks an hour to our youth workers,” says Barela, “but I have to find a way to raise this salary as soon as possible.”

Group home managers, who are not required to have a college degree, are paid $32,000 a year. Resident counselors, program managers and clinical staff with master’s degrees are paid $35,000. Barela, who started her job in 1977 at $1,000 a month, earns $64,000 a year – “way under the normal pay for my position,” she accurately notes.

Barela places employment ads in Honolulu, San Francisco and Seattle, using a “Hawaiians, Come Home” campaign.

She gets mixed results. The problem, says Barela, is that when Hawaii natives come home, “they find out the cost of living here is higher than where they are. … The cost of housing here is now as high as San Francisco,” which has the highest housing prices in the country.

Once Hale ’Opio gets the workers, however, “our nice and flexible work environment does the job,” she says. The agency’s annual turnover rate is 23 percent, she says – considerably below the 35.3 percent annual turnover rate in the state’s nonprofits in the health care and social services fields, as calculated by the Honolulu-based Hawaiian Employers Council.

This despite the fact that the agency has had to compete with state and local governments offering higher wages and benefits for direct-care workers, had to train workers on an island that has no four-year college, and then has to retain them once they’ve gained experience that qualifies them for higher-paying off-island jobs.

“It’s the stability of the administrative staff that can be counted upon to problem-solve,” says Agnew, the county youth programs coordinator. “Many of them have been there over 20 years.”

They stayed even after the hurricane.

“Hurricane ’Iniki wiped out 30 percent of the homes on the island, and the hotels [and] schools were shut down,” Agnew recalls. “Truancy doubled, and family violence and alcohol and drug abuse increased.

“Hale ’Opio came to the table with us, and we got programs such as the teen court,” which Agnew says has cut re-referrals of youths to court by 96 percent.

That response, she says, is just one of many ways in which Hale ’Opio “has been critical to at-risk youth on the island.”
Bill Alexander can be reached at


Mary Lou Barela, Executive Director
Hale ’Opio Kuau’i
2959 Umi Street
Lihu’e, HI 96766
(808) 245-2873

Clara Tolbe-Mackler, Social Worker
Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center
4530 Kali Road
Lihu’e, HI 96766
(808) 245-1873