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Students build homes, pride

Hawaii Community College’s housing construction project provides valuable experience and benefits families in need

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 4:10 a.m. HST, Apr 28, 2013

HILO >> Just about every year since 1965, Hawaii Community College career technical students have demonstrated the skills they've learned in class by building a home for a family in need.

In May, HCC's 46th home will be transferred to its new owners.

The tradition not only offers a novel and authentic educational experience for budding carpenters, welders, electricians, engineers, landscapers and others; it also gives students a real sense of pride.

Students aren't just building anything, their instructors say — they're putting a roof over a family's head.

"They take ownership of it," said Joel Tanabe, 57, chairman of HCC's construction technology department.

Dozens of students pitch in on the "model home" project, taking care of just about everything, from the concrete driveway to the home's foundation to the kitchen cabinets to installing solar panels on the roof.

When the program began, the homes were built for public-housing recipients on state land. Now they are constructed on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands properties.

HCC does not charge for student labor, only materials and any subcontracting costs.

Malia Keli'ikoa, 33, lives in last year's model home with her family — her boyfriend, Paul Lee Jr., and their two young children. She teaches first grade at a nearby Hawaiian-language immersion charter school.

Keli'ikoa purchased the model home for $199,000. Her mortgage is less than what she was paying for rent at a home elsewhere in Hilo.

She proudly showed off her three-bedroom, two-bath home on a recent morning, remarking on the kitchen cabinets (handmade by the students), the spacious living room and the novelty of living in a new home.

"This is more for our kids," she said. "I want them to have a place to call home."

Since moving in, she and her boyfriend have planted taro in the backyard, expanded an aquaponics system and added to the landscaping in the front.

This year's model home is being built right in front of her property.

A FEW MINUTES AWAY, at HCC, carpentry students were busy constructing this year's kitchen cabinets.

Louigie Lagua, 23, said the model home project has given him a new appreciation of all the elements that go into building a home.

He added that when he sees the 2013 model home under construction, he thinks, "I made that home."

HCC professor Gene Harada, who teaches concrete form and rough framing, went through the model home program himself. He helped build the 11th house.

Tanabe, the department chairman, helped build 1982's model home.

Harada said the model home project is about giving students real "job site experience."

"We give them insight into what the industry is like," he said.

That's invaluable, especially in today's competitive construction market, he said.

Harada added that some of Hilo's top construction firms are headed by HCC model home graduates.

Back in the workshop, Jhon Padamado, 22, of Hilo, eyed his measurements. He said he wants to be a carpenter and hopes hiring will pick up as the economy improves.

"I never did build one home," Padamado said, laughing, when asked what he thought about the program.

Tanabe, the department chairman, said perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the program is not that a home is built every year, but that all but one of the homes are still standing. The only one not around anymore, he said, was demolished to make way for a car dealership.

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