Hale ‘Opio continues reaching children despite budget cuts and program changes

KALAPAKI BEACH – According to Mayor Maryanne Kusaka, a teacher before she became a politician, it is not an easy job to work with difficult children “and change lives.”

That mission got much more complicated over the past year for Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i, Inc., a nonprofit corporation providing residential and community programs for those ages zero to 17 on the island.

Changes in state licensing agencies and methods, a chronic shortage of trained and experienced youth social workers, budget crunches that caused the agency to have to cut programs, and other woes could easily have turned the organization’s annual board meeting into a gloom-and-doom session.

But, optimism prevailed, with all involved understanding that the reason they are involved with Hale ‘Opio, as either paid staff or volunteer board members, foster parents and other adults, is for the children, not for themselves.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the kids,” said Mary Lou Barela, executive director, after board president Carol E. Suzawa thanked her for “being the right person for the right job” during Barela’s quarter of a century with Hale ‘Opio.

“The staff and the work that Hale ‘Opio does is simply outstanding,” said Robert H. Rask, board treasurer.

“You have me for an ally,” said Dr. Evan Dobelle, president of the University of Hawai’i and keynote speaker at the recent annual board meeting at the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club here.

“They’re all pinching,” Rask said of traditional, governmental sources of contract revenues. “We’re all getting pinched,” he added, calling the required board and agency reaction a “real serious transition.”

“We firmly believe that no child or adolescent should be marginalized or discarded,” Suzawa said. “We cannot afford to squander the important resources we have, nor can we waste the greatest investment we can make in our future. This also means that each of us must make an investment, an investment to assist in sustaining appropriate and effective programs for our most important resources, our children and youth, and the adults who care for and about them.”

The 43 employees and 15 foster families of Hale ‘Opio served over 300 children in the fiscal year ended June 30, said Suzawa.

Rask, Suzawa and others commented on how even the stretched staff is continuing to help as many of the island’s young people as they possibly can.

“The staff remains committed to the kids we serve,” said Suzawa. “Our staff is constantly challenged with the task of delivering services. They are asked to do more with less.”

Part of the problem is staffing Hale ‘Opio from a very limited pool of skilled youth workers. But a remedy could be on the horizon.

At the repeated request of Hale ‘Opio representatives, Kauai Community College prepares to install curriculum to enable people to gain master’s degrees in social work, possibly without having to leave the island for coursework at UH-Manoa.

Dobelle and Hale ‘Opio volunteers and paid staff envision a career track of courses in human and social services at local high schools, similar to existing programs gearing youngsters for careers in the visitor industry.

The statewide shortage of social workers requires a statewide solution, said Dobelle, advocating for creation of a self-sustaining system and utilizing the 10 campuses of the UH system to attain that goal.

If Dobelle is talking about offering would-be teachers four years of tuition waivers in exchange for the promise of four years teaching in the state, he said he would consider doing the same for those willing to go six years in order to obtain master’s degrees in social work in return for six years of professional service in Hawai’i, he told the crowd.

Dobelle also told the gathering he appreciates the ability to serve the state as UH president, and the invitation to speak at the annual meeting, to address “those who have not lost hope in the power of the human spirit.

“You may have lost your patience, and maybe thought you were losing your mind,” but haven’t lost hope, he said.

“Change has made Hale ‘Opio’s work move vital every year,” and all understand that action is nearly always more effective than reaction where problems seen and unforeseen arise, he continued.

“Hopelessness is seen in too many youth, too many,” he said. “Youth should be a time of hope,” said Dobelle, who in his younger years served as mayor of a small northeastern town on the Mainland.

A key to reducing numbers of hopeless youth is to break the cycle of physical abuse, drug abuse and neglect that moves from one generation to another in some families, Dobelle said.

“Your bottom line cannot be put on a line,” he concluded.

Also at the meeting, Suzawa and Rask were unanimously re-elected to their current board positions, with Rask re-elected to a two-year term on the board. Mark S. Hubbard, vice-president, and Peter Nakamura, secretary, were also re-elected to their same positions, also by unanimous vote.

Charles Kawakami and Jo Ann Shimamoto were honored as outgoing board members, and Thomas Lodico of American Express Financial Advisors was welcomed to the board. A final board member will join the group in October.

Re-elected to new terms were Nancy J. Budd (one-year term), Carol Furtado (two years), and Phyllis Kunimura and Janet Mayfield (three years each), with Hartwell H.K. Blake, Myles S. Shibata, Shirley Akita and Avery Youn carryover board members.

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