Jes-L "Hoku" Kalawa once dreamed of becoming mayor to help Hawaiian people, but has set that ambition aside due to her disabilities and the recent birth of a second child.
She has been working on an associate degree in Hawaiian studies at Windward Community College, but her "kumu" or mentor recently advised her, "‘Don’t worry about being a Hawaiian activist. Get a well-paying job as a chef and take care of your family,’" Kalawa recalled.
"I think that’s best," she added.
But until a job materializes, this single mother can’t stretch her welfare check far enough to buy Christmas presents for her kids, and that’s where Helping Hands Hawaii’s Adopt-A-Family Program comes in.
Needy families who sign up with the program are also assisted by the Star-Advertiser’s annual Good Neighbor Fund holiday drive. Readers may adopt a family featured in our weekly GNF story with cash donations or gifts. Or they may contribute to the general fund for all families, and drop off material goods at the Helping Hands’ Community Clearinghouse. For details, see the information box.
Kalawa, 35, lives in a public housing project in Kahaluu, part of a federal program that helps recipients acquire education that contributes toward self-sufficiency and future employment. She plans to develop her talent for cooking and go to culinary arts school soon, but she isn’t giving up her desire to help the Hawaiian people.
"I had dreams of becoming mayor" or a Hawaiian studies high school teacher as a way to give back to her community, she said.
That’s because becoming deeply involved in her culture kept her strong early in life, she said. In her Hawaiian classes, she’s learned a lot about her culture’s healing arts.
"How better to administer the medicine than through something that everybody wants to eat or drink?" she asked.
A bit over a year ago, Kalawa said she was a "very different person … just barely able to care for my son, just feeding, bathing and love, but no playing, reading to him, or seeing family."
She was still dealing with severe depression and other mental health disorders that crippled her ability to function in daily life. She started getting treatment five years ago, once she learned she was pregnant with her son. Back then, she was on drugs, living on the streets and "totally overweight — 335 pounds," and had been in a long-term abusive relationship.
Kalawa said she suffered from substance abuse, anxiety/panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, all stemming from "growing up in an oppressed setting, (being one of) six children, welfare and poverty and drugs — a hard-knock life," she said.
The "childhood trauma," as she calls it, began when she was about 10. She and her five siblings were taken from her mother, a drug addict, and put in foster homes.
For all of her flaws, however, Kalawa’s mother always em- phasized the importance of getting an education.
"Unpredictable things happen in life, (and) life is so complicated," Kalawa said of the turmoil. But being exposed to different situations in the foster care system "really opened my eyes to what was out there for all of us," she said, adding, "If you want something, you can have it. You need to do whatever it takes to get there, and that’s why I want a degree."
Further motivating her was the birth on Mother’s Day of her baby girl.
"Now I’m in a grateful spot," she said. "My beautiful baby girl … has been my inspiration to work harder to provide the best life for my family."
For Christmas, her daughter could use some teething toys, play mats and diapers; and her son, video games. Kalawa also needs a new computer screen to replaced one that’s cracked.