Homeless children usually can’t afford to go to preschool, so the Ka Pa’alana Traveling Preschool and Homeless Outreach program takes its classroom to the beaches and homeless shelters.
"We’re the opposite of ‘build it and they will come,’" said project director Danny Goya. "We’d rather go to where the people dwell."
But last summer, the construction of two portable yurts—which look like round circus tents topped with domes—gave Ka Pa’alana a place to call home for the time being, he said. The yurt is a type of shelter used by Central Asian nomads for centuries.
The yurts were erected between the Onemalu and Onelau’ena transitional shelters at Kalaeloa, where a commencement service for 43 students and a yurts dedication were held last month. Ka Pa’alana is one of several programs founded by the nonprofit Partners in Development Foundation, which partners with the state Department of Human Services and Waianae Community Outreach.
In January 2007, the program started offering preschool for kids up to age 5 on the beaches, following the homeless as they were evicted from one beach to another, Goya said. When some of the families entered transitional shelters, as encouraged by the staff, Ka Pa’alana set up "Preschool Under the Tarps" at Kalaeloa in late 2007. Two 20-by-20-foot tarps were set up and taken down five days a week, he said.
"It is hard work," said teacher Kathy Fong, remembering how staff would also have to unload vans filled with educational supplies, then pack everything up at day’s end. "The school is still portable, but it’s nice to have a place where you don’t have to worry, ‘What if it rains?’"
Goya said: "We were getting lots of claims for workman’s compensation (from injured staff) and the kids would always be running out from the tents. When OHA (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) gave us the money to buy the yurts, it was such a godsend for us."
The two yurts, which cost a total of $55,000, are each 30 feet in diameter and about 15 feet tall. Goya ordered the largest size made by Yurt Pacific Inc. of Oregon after seeing a smaller version used for homeless people in Waiahole.
It took two months to set up the yurts with the help of homeless youth, who were taught carpentry skills in the process, he added.
Each yurt is an aerodynamic structure consisting of a durable fabric cover, a wood frame that includes a lattice wall, radial rafters and framed doors and windows.
"The beauty of this is, it could be 90 degrees outside and it acts like a Vornado fan," Goya said. "We can open the skylight and hot air rises out of the top (of the dome). And it can withstand hurricane winds."
Ka Pa’alana’s curriculum is based on the premise that "children learn best with their parents, their first and most influential caregivers," Goya said. The program follows National Center for Family Literacy guidelines, and also offers parenting classes. It is a year away from being certified as the first NCFL preschool focusing on the homeless, he said.
Goya, an NCFL-certified trainer, said improving parenting skills and teaching Hawaiian cultural values—like po’okela, which means "striving for the best"—prevents the cycle of poverty from infecting one generation to the next.
Cheryl Soares and husband Henry moved into Onelau’ena in January with a daughter, 6, and a son who was born with a cleft palate. The boy hadn’t spoken much before his surgery, but now, at 18 months of age, he expresses himself easily and is running around.
"The preschool helped us a lot because we don’t have the finances," Cheryl Soares said. "The kids love it; my son loves it. They see the yurts and they know that it’s school. The staff is awesome—they give so much aloha."
When Tiare and Frank Joao came to Onelau’ena six months ago, their 20-month-old son needed speech and physical therapy.
"Now he’s totally walking and talking, a 110 percent improvement, and his social skills are just flourishing," Tiare Joao said.
As a suggestion from parents, an after-school/summer mentoring program was started in 2008 to help kids 6 to 18 stay on track and "stop babies from having babies," Goya said.
Ka Pa’alana serves 150 families, or 1,000 homeless people a year, in transitional shelters and on the beaches, Goya said. Other sites include Maili Land, ‘Ohana Ola and Waianae Civic Center shelters, beaches in Nanakuli and Keaau, and Kaupuni Park in Waianae.