All it took was a detour off of a hiking trail a few weeks ago at the base of Kalepa Ridge for resident Jennie Waiwaiole-Vega of Kapa‘a to take action.
After finding the Hanama‘ulu Cemetery, or Kalepa Cemetery, under tall overgrown grass, Waiwaiole-Vega organized a cleanup of the Japanese and Filipino cemetery.
“I was saddened to see the state of the cemetery,” Waiwaiole-Vega, 38, said. “It was extremely overgrown. I shared a quick video of the cemetery on my social media account and got a lot of feedback. My friend Tiffany Riopta commented and said she would help me clean it. It was then I decided to move forward with the project.”
Waiwaiole-Vega said if there was one person as excited as her about it, she knew there had to be others out there who were willing to help, too. Shortly after Waiwaiole-Vega posted her video on her Facebook page, she got a lot of responses, which jump-started her volunteer group, Friends of Kalepa.
“There are dozens of people who utilize Kalepa Ridge for exercise and recreation on a daily basis, especially since COVID-19,” Waiwaiole-Vega said. “It was time to give back to the area.”
The volunteers were nominated as this week’s Hometown Heroes for their contributions at Kalepa Cemetery last month.
According to Waiwaiole-Vega, on Sunday, Aug. 30 from 7 a.m. to noon, a group of 28 volunteers cleared out hundreds of small “haole koa” trees and other nuisance plants that were overgrown, filling 20 trash bags of green waste, tirelessly for five hours straight.
Waiwaiole-Vega said Volunteers came and left throughout the day, so there was never a point where there were more than 25 volunteers at a time (per the Mayor’s rule for outdoor gatherings).
“We ensured social distancing was maintained throughout the day,” Waiwaiole-Vega added.
Waiwaiole-Vega said she hopes that this project can continue for years to come. Although the cemetery falls under the county, the Hanama‘ulu Community Association (HCA) has maintained it in the past.
“In my research, I believe that last big clean up was done back in 2016,” Waiwaiole-Vega said. “Unfortunately the organizers back then have either passed away or are not physically able to help anymore.”
She continued: “It’s time for the next generation to step up.”
Waiwaiole-Vega said she doesn’t live in Hanama‘ulu, but she grew up with friends whose families still live there.
“I’ve participated in many projects, but this has probably been the most fulfilling one yet,” Waiwaiole-Vega said.
Kaleo Perez, a resident of Hanama‘ulu, empathized with Waiwaiole-Vega.
“Jennie mentioned the idea, and I thought it was a great idea especially after walking in there and taking a look for myself,” Perez said. “It really needed to get cleaned up because graves were covered by shrubbery and headstones were not visible.”
“Plus, I’m a Hanama‘ulu resident and I use the path often, more so I felt the need to help out,” Perez said. “It was just a small way of giving back.”
He continued: “We hope to tackle the Filipino side of the cemetery in October.”
The group couldn’t have done it without help from other individuals and businesses, including the Kalepa Krew hiking group.
“We are so fortunate to have businesses and people who were willing to donate to our project: Konohiki Seafoods donated 25 bento lunches for the volunteers, Safeway Lihu‘e donated donuts and fruits, Starbucks Kukui Grove donated coffee, the Hanama‘ulu Community Association donated coffee, water and Gatorade, Patsy Rapozo donated (delicious) baked goods, Lush Landscaping let us borrow a couple of huge wheelbarrows, the Kaua‘i Shores Hotel provided a couple of employees for manpower along with cleaning supplies (hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes), and tools, and Kipu Ranch Adventures is giving every volunteer a 50% discount on any tour booked through September.”
Waiwaiole-Vega said the volunteers brought any yard tools and equipment they had.
“We ended up with more than enough weed whackers, hedge trimmers, chainsaws, rakes and clippers to get the job done,” Waiwaiole-Vega said.
Waiwaiole-Vega said she is hoping that the group can continue to maintain the cemetery once a month moving forward.
“I am hoping that we can continue to maintain the cemetery once a month moving forward,” Waiwaiole-Vega said. “As long as we continue to utilize the area, we should all continue to help maintain it…as the saying goes ‘leave it better than you found it.’”
“Where ever we go on Kaua‘i and beyond, we should always keep that saying in mind,” Waiwaiole-Vega added.