Building Community with Hale Halawai

Mina Morita discusses the unique circumstances associated with supporting a rural island community.

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Austin Hattox:
Today, we're going to be speaking with Mina Morita, board president of Hale Halawai 'Ohana O Hanalei. Mina, Welcome to the show.

Mina Morita:
Thank you, Austin. Thank you for having me.

Austin Hattox:
For those in our audience who aren't already familiar, could you talk a little about Hale Halawai and what you guys do?

Mina Morita:
Okay. Hale Halawai is a community center in the town of Hanalei on the Island of Kauai in Hawaii. And what happened was in the 1980s, a pretty major hurricane hit Kauai and the elders at that time realized that there weren't any public areas where people could convene easily. There was a school. There was an old courthouse. But not building that the community had total control over. So the discussions actually had started happening in early 1980s after Hurricane Iwa. Finally around 1993, the first building for Hale Halawai 'Ohana O Hanalei was built, but that was after Hurricane Iniki, another major hurricane, which really emphasized the need for a community gathering place.

Mina Morita:

So Hale Halawai 'Ohana O Hanalei, its meaning is within its name. Hale means house. Halawai is to gather. Ohana is family and Hanalei, So the families of Hanalei. So the name literally means a house for gathering the families of Hanalei. The nonprofit began in 1993 and opening its first building and given this name and its mission is to create a gathering place for cultural education and for community engagement and actions to support social civic and recreational events to perpetuate the value of Aloha and the betterment of our community. And Hale Halawai was the first nonprofit community center in the state of Hawaii.

Austin Hattox:
What are some of the major programs or events that Hale Halawai typically organizes in order to accomplish that mission?

Mina Morita:
One of the major projects of Hale Halawai was an annual summer program called the Hawaiian Cultural Explorations Program, where we run a six week program. And again, it's for fun activities, but mainly to learn the cultural aspect of Kauai. And so that was a main program led by one of our board members, Naomi Yokotake, who is also a founding board member. The facilities is used for a variety of activities. We have veteran outreach programs, a homeschool uses our facility several times a week to gather their students, AA meetings. We have a certified kitchen that leaked into we have a weekly farmer's market. So for value added products, they can be prepared in the kitchen and sold at the market.

Mina Morita:
We've held classes for the community in conjunction with the local community college here. And some of these classes have been just for basic computer skills, like learning how to use QuickBooks or better at Google or Excel spreadsheets. Those kinds of skills. We have a big supporter in a couple that teaches slack key guitar. So they have weekly concerts. But things are in flux right now because of COVID-19 and gathering practices and social distancing. So we're a little bit more mindful on the kinds of activities that can take place indoors and trying to see how we can transition in its use as we deal with the situation.

Austin Hattox:
Right. I definitely want to explore you guys' COVID response, but I'm struck by the different types of supports that you provide your community. It sounds like there's a lot of programs that fulfill a need that are separate. It's interesting how you have classes for computer skills and then also AA meetings and veteran outreach and homeschool. How did you guys come to provide so many different types of support for your community?

Mina Morita:
Well, I think the common thread here is that all of these different kinds of programs needed a place to conduct their activities. And so that's what we provide, that house or that meeting site where it's accessible to the community.

Austin Hattox:
So you guys serve as the hub where people can congregate and actually participate in these different programs that need a place where people can go.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. Primarily our major programs are the summer program and the farmer's market and providing the computer skills classes or training. So those are some of the programs that the organization has developed and where the rest of them are other programs where they just use our facilities.

Austin Hattox:
Okay. And you said you are located in Kauai Island?

Mina Morita:

Yes. On the North shore of Kauai Island and the Hale Halawai, we like to say it's located in the heart of Hanalei. So right in the center of the town.

Austin Hattox:
And what's the population of your community?

Mina Morita:
Oh, let's see. We're in such transition. So I'm not absolutely sure, but it's probably about 1000, but it's from Hanalei to eight miles out to the end of the road. So just in that section.

Austin Hattox:
That's super cool. And I could definitely see with more of a smaller community that having this place for people to congregate and see... I'm sure you guys are a way for people to find out what programs or what is going on in terms of your community.

Mina Morita:
We're trying. When it was started in 1993, definitely there were far fewer resources during that period. We had a school and we had a court house and the public use of those two buildings were pretty much limited to the evenings, if available at all. It's been almost 30 years and the community has grown. It has transitioned from basically an agricultural town with work outside of the area, into one of the must go places to stay on the island and becoming more tourist oriented. So the demographics of the community has changed a lot. And it's going through some pretty dramatic social transitions right now, or at least the last two decades.

Austin Hattox:
On that note of transitioning, how has COVID changed how you guys normally operate?

Mina Morita:
Really, most of our programs have stopped, have been paused because of the social distancing needs. And it's put us in a flux, because we were pretty self sufficient with income that we generated from the farmer's market and the user fees for the facilities. We have paid staff. We have an executive director. We have people that help with the farmer's market, especially with parking, directing people. We have a market manager. So we're very cognizant about our revenue decline and adjusting budgets and put on pause some expansion programs just to keep afloat right now.

Austin Hattox:
That makes total sense. A lot of the value you provide is kind of in person based.

Mina Morita:
Exactly. I think that is a challenge for so many nonprofits because it's providing a need and usually that need includes a face to face contact.

Austin Hattox:
Have you guys made any effort or explored any of the solutions for, obviously, some things wouldn't work in an online environment, but stuff like maybe holding AA meetings online or transitioning some of those meetings that were in person?

Mina Morita:
Yes. For example, the AA meetings went to an online format and I believe that they're still doing that. They're not meeting in person. Veterans outreach is a little different because usually it's just one on one types of meetings. So that's a little bit more doable. I don't believe the homeschool has come back yet. We've been allowed to reopen the farmer's market and mainly because it's an outdoor venue. And so, again, outdoor venue, practicing social distancing and masks required, but the difficulty with the farmer's market is it catered a lot to tourists. And so definitely the activity at the farmer's market is down. We've offered to the slack key concert to hold their concert outdoors. On our campus, we have one main building and we also have, it's called the halau, but it's an outdoor structure, open air structure with a thatched roof where we have picnic tables and stuff. So that's another area that can be used.

Austin Hattox:
Yeah. So it sounds like you guys are trying to fill in the cracks as best as possible because this is a big shock to the system for all nonprofits, but for you guys trying to move some of this stuff so that people can continue to operate in maybe 80% capacity of what was going on previously.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. I don't think it's even at 80%, we're like at 50%.

Austin Hattox:
Would you say some of the adoption to moving to an online format is more difficult within your community or are people typically kind of receptive to that?

Mina Morita:

We're almost completing a survey, talk about technology and created a Google form to survey our farmers, our vendors at farmer's market and small businesses in the area to assess what the needs are right now. And if they were interested in taking classes in person, we were gifted about 30 laptops by Facebook. So we have the ability to either start a loan program or to conduct classes within our facilities. But again, should we conduct these classes, taking into account social distancing, and making sure that the classes are small enough to accommodate social distancing and minimize risk?

Austin Hattox:
And are you guys still in the process of collecting that survey data?

Mina Morita:
Yeah, I think we're right at the end. It's been out for a couple of weeks, reaching out not only to our farmers and vendors, but going broader to anybody that has their own business, own small business, and again, to assess needs.

Austin Hattox:
I like that approach where you're trying to meet people where they are and understand expectations and make the best of a not ideal situation.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. If you asked me 20 years ago, I think it was pretty easy to identify the community needs and meet those expectations. But now it's a little bit more difficult.

Austin Hattox:

Yeah. I believe that for sure.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. We don't want to create programs when there isn't a need, just because we think the program should exist.

Austin Hattox:
So what is one tech tool or website that you and your team have started using in the past year?

Mina Morita:

I think it's been a little bit more than a year, but... I'm sorry, I don't know what the program is, but it's a time clock so everybody can check in using the tool for employee scheduling with it. It's a supporting time clock. Because people have different schedules. Nobody has a nine to five job. They come in at different times.

Austin Hattox:
And so is that like a tool that allows you guys to manage everybody's schedule?

Mina Morita:
Scheduling and checking in for their shift. Having to come into the office and processing timecards. So mainly for better productivity. Other things is getting the board to use Google Drive and putting all of our shared documents on Google Drive for easy access. On top of that, training the board on Google Drive.

Austin Hattox:
Getting people to adopt new technology that they're not necessarily used to can sometimes be an uphill battle.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. Moving away from paper. And especially when you bring on new board members or just having that continuity where they can access older minutes, older documents, any kind of memorandums of agreement or understanding, all the charter documents, bylaws. So they're a little bit more easily accessible.

Austin Hattox:
So are you guys battling with any tech issues right now?

Mina Morita:
For the island in general, the coverage is not as good as it should be and not as expansive as it should be or can be. It's living in a rural area and those kinds of challenges. So there are larger issues, larger tech issues regarding broadband for the island.

Austin Hattox:
Is there an expansion in some of that infrastructure or is it a slow process over time?

Mina Morita:
My understanding is that we rely on an under sea cable from Oahu. And so my understanding is there's enough capacity and redundancy in that cable. Part of the challenge is that last mile. So trying to serve less populated areas and just the fact that there's no competition. There's two primary providers and lousy service.

Austin Hattox:
I can understand that pain.

Mina Morita:
But at the center, at Hale Halawai, the connection is pretty good overall, both broadband, wifi, cell coverage.

Austin Hattox:
So yeah, once you have the coverage, you're good, but it's just a matter of increasing that coverage.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. The other thing I think that has helped immensely is... technology has helped immensely is for the farmer's market credit card processing. So a program like Square. 10 years ago it used to be an all cash. The ease of credit card processing, I think that has helped for better sales.

Austin Hattox:
That makes a lot of sense. And I'm sure the demand from tourists for stuff like that would be pretty high.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. One of the ways to fundraise for us is we sell small items like shopping bags, tee shirts. So that helps.

Austin Hattox:
And are you guys anticipating more tourists coming as it sounds like you're going to be opening up more fairly soon.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. The anticipate open date is August 1, but in the meantime, they're encouraging more staycations. So we're getting visitors from other islands coming to Kauai. There's a huge buy local effort and support local businesses. I think there are a lot of people doing their part to especially support agriculture because we want to see agriculture succeed as a pathway to sustainability.

Austin Hattox:
What role does your website play in the bigger picture of Hale Halawai?

Mina Morita:
I think for our website, it's mainly to inform of what Hale Halawai is, but we also use it for operational purposes. This is where people can go online to check the calendar, to book the use of our facilities online.

Austin Hattox:
What is one thing you think your website could do better?

Mina Morita:
Refresh content on a more regular basis, make it more interesting to read. And that's something that we haven't been consistent with. And I think when we have that ability to make it a go to place for information, updated information, I think it becomes a better fundraising tool.

Austin Hattox:
Yeah. I agree with that. I think it's valuable to be able to do that and it looks a little more appealing to funders or donors.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. But right now, especially if we have an inquiry about the nonprofit, it's just to send them there for the basic information. We have a caretaker who's an excellent photographer. So he's been using the Instagram account to post her photographs, which are really amazing. So it's a slow start, but people are starting to recognize that and follow that account. And so, I think it would be to our advantage to build on that.

Austin Hattox:
Are you guys using any other social media or is it primarily Instagram right now?

Mina Morita:
Primarily the website and Instagram.

Austin Hattox:
With a rural Island community, I'm sure you just walk outside your door and you take a photo and it's beautiful.

Mina Morita:
It's beautiful. Yeah. Check it out. And we're in a really idyllic setting. Right next to our campus are taro patches. That's a real iconic kind of scenery and what Hanalei is known for is its taro fields or in Hawaiian Kalo Loi. And right behind that is a mountain Namolokama, which usually has a huge waterfall going down the front of it. And if you listen to all of the famous Hawaiian songs about the area, that's the mountain that they talk about Namolokama or the heavy rains of Hanalei, Hanalei moon and Hanalei bay. So there's good reasons why it transitioned from agriculture to a tourist destination. It's just such a scenic beautiful area.

Austin Hattox:
Yeah. You're doing a good job selling it. You can hear the birds chirping in the background. So it definitely sounds pretty idyllic. Zooming out a little bit, where do you see Hale Halawai in five years?

Mina Morita:
What I'd like to see in five years is that we're successful in our capital improvement campaign. And so the buildings that were built almost 30 years ago are either renovated or replaced. And if they're replaced, that the design is more flexible in its use. Like you can put up, take down walls, also more energy efficient, well-connected, that we have the layout for the farmer's market is more conducive to having other events and that we have good drainage because it rains here a lot, making sure that the contours of the property provide for good drainage.

Austin Hattox:
Totally. If you could go back in time to before you got involved with Hale Halawai, what would you tell yourself?

Mina Morita:
I think what I would tell myself is to be more strident in the direction of the community. Because in retrospect, we've had some major natural disasters here and we allowed ourselves to be complacent and overly dependent on tourism. And it's had a devastating social impact on our community where very few can afford to live in this area. And so that's been the most difficult challenge is rebuilding this community because most of the housing inventory has turned to vacation rentals and the real estate prices have gone sky high. So if I have to look back and tell myself something it's I should have been more strident in helping take control of the future of the community.

Mina Morita:
Like I said, I talked about the two hurricanes that were 10 years apart, but in 2018 there was major flooding in this area where they described it as a rain bomb over the area and where it dumped something like over 50 inches of rain in a 24 hour period.

Austin Hattox:
Wow.

Mina Morita:
So the communities that were going West of Hanalei were isolated for over six months because the landslides causing the roads to close and the damage that happened. So that gave us a lot of notice about all of our efforts should be at how do we build a resilient community? And just prior to that time, the visitor traffic in the area was horrendous. We have a lot of one lane bridges, especially after work or on the four o'clock hour after school, the traffic would back up for miles trying to get over these one lane bridges. And the state park at the end of the road was seeing 3000 people a day in this really small area, which is the gateway to the Na Pali Wilderness State Park. It's a really beautiful wilderness area where it's only accessible by a trail, by boat, or helicopter. It's a 14 mile hike in. It has such a profound impact on the resources where the resources were degrading. The visitor and resident experience was deteriorating. And having that 2018 flood just put a stop to everything.

Mina Morita:
During the period of recovery throughout 2019, without this activity, you saw the resources recover. You saw the fish come back. You saw the reef regenerate and in a pretty quick way. So people are more cognizant of the carrying capacity of these areas and what it would take to protect these areas. So again, with the COVID situation it gave us a second chance to think about the resiliency of the community and the impact of the visitor industry on the area and the resources.

Austin Hattox:
I love that reframing of the coronavirus issue and being able to look at it as, well, this is our opportunity to step back and maybe reevaluate some things and even look forward once this is no longer a situation, then how can we better move forward as a community and deal with some of these issues that we're struggling with?

Mina Morita:
Right. And just a quick aside, during that 2018 event, we really relied on again, Google forms for needs assessments and going house to house with surveys to find out, first of all, what was the household like? How many people? Were there elders there? Did they need medication? What were the immediate needs? How many school children that they had that were being impacted? So we created a database using Google forms and Excel spreadsheets to chart the needs of the community. That became a real valuable database for other nonprofits who were offering services that were trying to find the households in need.

Austin Hattox:
That's awesome. I'm sure a lot of the issue there is just having that data available. And so by you guys doing the legwork and pulling it together, you guys create a center of knowledge that can be repurposed and a lot of other organizations can benefit from.

Mina Morita:
Yeah. Yeah. And this was one of the things that we kind of found lacking when the disaster happened with the other established nonprofits like Red Cross, first of all, there was just privacy issues and the ability to share information. So we worked with nonprofits like Red Cross to see what their damage assessment reports. We had access to some of the information from Team Rubicon and also Samaritan's Purse. So what we tried to do is compile that information and then make it available to other nonprofits to meet needs.

Austin Hattox:
So we're getting close to time. Are there any last minute thoughts that you'd like to leave with our listeners?

Mina Morita:
I think the challenge for nonprofits is always income, being highly reliant on that. But what nonprofits really need are good permanent staff. So there's consistency and continuity and you can't totally rely on volunteers, especially for creating that backbone, whether it's technology, human resources support, those kinds of things. You really need some consistency there. And that's what we're trying to create at Hale Halawai, that we have this backbone of support that's consistent and capable.

Austin Hattox:
Excellent. Okay. Well, that's all the questions I've got for you, Mina. Thanks so much for appearing on the show and sharing the impact you guys are having with Hale Halawai.

Mina Morita:
Yeah, you're doing really good with that name.

Austin Hattox:
Okay, good. I'm glad to hear. I was a little nervous before we hopped on the call. So if our listeners would like to find out more about you guys, where would be the best place to look online?

Mina Morita:
Okay. Probably our website. If you just Google Hale Halawai. So H-A-L-E and then another word, H-A-L-A-W-A-I and Kauai or Hanalei after it, that should take you to our website.

Austin Hattox:
Awesome. I'll include a link to you guys' as website in the show notes.

Mina Morita:
Great. Thank you. Appreciate that. Aloha.

Austin Hattox:
Aloha. 
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