LIHUE — You could say Lei Sanchez is proud of the work Hale Opio does with youth.
And you would be right.
But the community programs director is more than proud. She loves what she and the others at this nonprofit do to help young people on Kauai 24/7.
“I’m very humbled and fortunate to work with an amazing group of people,” Sanchez said at Hale Opio’s annual meeting Wednesday, which was attended by about 75 people. “We truly love the work that we do and serving our families.”
When you connect with Hale Opio, she said, you become part of family — a family that not only sees and knows of the battles youth face, but can have an impact for the better on their lives.
Since 1975, that’s been more than 10,000 island youth and families.
“To be able to do something like that is truly remarkable,” she said.
During Hale Opio’s meeting outside its Lihue headquarters, staff, board members and Executive Director Vonn Ramos outlined appreciation for community support and shared hopes for the future.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and Senate President Ron Kouchi both praised the organization.
Ramos looked at the crowd and said, “Each of you have been connected in some way to Hale Opio.”
Hale Opio Kauai, which has a staff of about 50, started out serving youth from across the state in its group home. Today, it provides over 20 programs at no cost — annually reaching more than 500 young people — that teach skills, strengthen relationships and offer opportunities for positive development.
It offers residential and community programs for education, prevention, court diversion and treatment.
Ramos, born and raised on Kauai, came on board two years ago.
“A lot of my goals were very ambitious and I think a lot of it has come to fruition,” he said.
He cited stronger partnerships with organizations, agencies and businesses that help meet those goals.
“So we’re able to serve more youths, service more families,” he said. “We’re able to get into more schools and provide more prevention education.”
It is expanding its reach into schools and taking the lead on anti-bullying programs, and providing curriculum on areas such as making positive choices and healthy relations.
It is doing more than raising awareness, but also taking actions.
“We’re taking it to the next level,” Ramos said.
Vonn, who is a certified substance abuse counselor, said his heart “has always been with our youth and adolescents.”
He worked in school-based treatment programs and met youth struggling with substance abuse.
“All these experiences, they taught me to grow,” he said.
Kevin Lowry, treatment programs director, said he and his staff are ready to respond, always.
“We’re up in the middle of the night,” he said.
They are “totally committed” to whatever comes their way.
“You can call anytime, and they will be there,” Lowry said, as the crowd applauded.
Curtis Law, board president, thanked the staff.
“With all the testimony we’re had today, it’s real clear we are having an impact,” he said.
Ramos spoke of one challenge, electronic cigarettes, and how youth are using them. Hale Opio sees a growing risk that comes with those electronic smokes because usage can lead to drugs, alcohol or both.
“Our young people, they’re all about experimenting,” he said. “How can they take it to the next level?”
Key is education and keeping youth on the right path.
“They will become adults in the near future so we want therm to be healthy,” Ramos said.
Homelessness is another area of concern.
“Whenever there is a homeless youth, it’s most likely there is a homeless family that’s attached to that youth,” he said. “We can help connect them to resources.”
His staff makes sacrifices for clients.
“We may be the only hope for them,” he said. “So we try our best.”
He emphasized Hale Opio can only make a lasting impact through its partnerships.
“Hale Opio continues to be successful because we’re connecting,” he said. “We can’t go it alone.”
“There’s a lot of people who are passionate, very concerned about the issues of Kauai, so just connecting with them and utilizing their passion to help us serve the community,” he said.
Ramos said it’s been his mission since he started to create an open hale, “where this is not just a house just for our youth, but it’s a house for our community. A house for anyone that has a need, they can come to us and we can connect them.”
No one, he said, is ever turned away.
“If there is a need, we’ll try to be there,” he said. “Hale Opio will be there.”