Cultivation of kalo helps at-risk youth learn life skills — and Hawaiian values

Updated: Jul. 20, 2017 at 5:22 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

MAUNAWILI, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Reconnecting and rebuilding Hawaii's lands and people from the ground up — that's the mission of an Oahu family who transformed a plot of land in Maunawili into a working taro farm.

Dean Wilhelm, a musician and former teacher, started the Hookuaaina loi kalo with his wife, Michele. They hope the non-profit will help teach life strategies to at-risk youth through the cultivation of kalo.

"We saw a need in the community for people to have a place where (they) could build relationships and connections," Michele Wilhelm said.

"It's connecting here at the base level," added Dean. "It's really going back to the basics."

The group grows several old Hawaiian varieties of kalo but primarily focus on the cultivation of the Moi Kea variety. Dean WIlhelm says the variety grows well in the area that houses the Wilhelm's seven-acre property, which was first acquired ten years ago.

"If you look around at the perimeter, that's basically what it looked like," Michelle says. "Completely overgrown. Jungle. It hadn't been touched in what was said to be 100 years."

The Wilhelm's created this gathering place for families, community groups, and schools, but at the heart of it is helping at-risk youth – all of it done through native Hawaiian practices.

"I get reconnected with my heritage, being a person of Hawaiian descent," says Akamu Pooloa, a former intern of the program. "It definitely fills my cup in that way."

Hookuaaina offers a variety of programs for all ages to have hands-on experience through farming the Hawaiian traditional staple food. The life skills are taught a little differently at the loi, just like the growing of the plant itself.

Dean says most taro farmers flood their patches with stream water. This area of Maunawili where Hookuaaina is located is fed by fresh water springs.

"The name of it is moi, the variety of the taro. The growing of the kalo is different than how most taro farmers grow taro today," says Wilhelm. "It's kind of the auwai system where you have a stream and flood the patch."

Once the kalo is harvested, it's cleaned, sorted, processed, and bagged. Hookuaaina sells the taro as poi, but also raw or ready to eat. All of the proceeds go back to their mission.

"It's not necessarily the growing of kalo and things like that, but it's really returning to some of the values," Dean said.

If you want to learn more about Hookuaaina's mission, click here.

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