Using a taro patch in Hawaii, this couple teaches the islands’ values to youths

Dean and Michele Wilhelm mentor young people facing challenging circumstances. Taro farming provides an opportunity for the couple to weave regional culture into the lessons.

Boys weed a lo’i, or taro patch, as part of their involvement with Hoʻokuaʻāina, a nonprofit organization in Hawaii.

Dean and Michele Wilhelm dreamed of creating a space that was restorative and healing for others, perhaps a relaxing retreat for couples or families. They had no intention of becoming taro farmers.

But Mr. Wilhelm started taking the tropical vegetable from their backyard garden to use in his work as a teacher for at-risk youths and incarcerated juveniles. At the same time, the family began cultivating community through gatherings around traditional Hawaiian food. It became clear that taro farming was just the way for the couple to realize their dream.

Now, nearly 10 years after buying land with all the conditions for a successful taro patch, the Wilhelms are carrying out their vision by running Hoʻokuaʻāina, a nonprofit organization. They use taro farming as a means of teaching Hawaiian values and mentoring youths facing challenging circumstances.

“[Dean] tells us that the purpose of the place is to grow people,” says Zack Pilien, a Hoʻokuaʻāina intern. “Growing taro is a byproduct.”

Some researchers have suggested there are links between an erosion of Hawaiian culture, Western influence in the islands, and higher rates of substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, and other social problems among Native Hawaiians. Drug use is particularly prevalent among youths: About 60 percent of Native Hawaiian students have used drugs by 12th grade, compared with 46 percent statewide, according to statistics from the Hawaii State Department of Health.

The Wilhelms hope that instilling Hawaiian values in at-risk youths will help bolster their sense of self-worth and encourage them to be contributing members of society. And taro farming is a fitting vessel for that culture-based mentoring.

Taro, called kalo in the Hawaiian language, is both a root and leafy vegetable. The root can be prepared and served like a potato or in traditional dishes such as poi, and the leaves are often used to wrap fish or pork in a Hawaiian dish called laulau.

But taro is much more than a dietary staple for Hawaiians. The traditional tale of the first kalo plant is also the story of the origins of the Hawaiian people – and the Wilhelms use this narrative to help teach a sense of kuleana, or responsibility.

The story varies, but the gist of it is that a god and goddess have a baby who dies. The first kalo plant grows where they bury that child. Then they have another child who lives and becomes the first human. “This human being cares for its elder sibling, and that elder sibling in turn then cares for that child,” Dean says. “It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

The Wilhelms use the story to discuss the responsibility people have to care for the natural world, and for others. They also talk to those they mentor about a sense of self-respect. “We’re looking to increase positive self-esteem and for them to be able to understand that their life has meaning and purpose,” Mrs. Wilhelm says.

A session in the taro patch

Once a week about a dozen boys who are between 13 and 17 years old join Dean in the mud of the lo’i, or taro patch. The teenagers live at a safe house, called Ke Kama Pono, for at-risk youths.

Dean starts the work session with a Hawaiian proverb, such as “ ‘A‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia,” or “No task is too great when accomplished together by all.” The group discusses how the proverb applies to work in the lo’i or other parts of their lives before jumping into the mud – which is often four feet deep – to weed, harvest, or do whatever is needed that day.

When the teens get tired or act uninterested in the work, Dean strikes the right balance between “stern, direct, and compassionate all at the same time,” says Jared Laufou, direct care counselor at Ke Kama Pono. “His tone of voice is never demeaning, but it’s this kind of tone where he expects you to do your job.”

The boys aren’t used to being entrusted with a project, Mr. Laufou explains. “For a lot of them, they have failed to accomplish something and maybe have been criticized about their failures, so they learned to run away from projects. But working with Uncle Dean at his lo’i, they’re held accountable.”

The Wilhelms see positive changes, such as in the teens’ posture, as they carry themselves with more pride. They also make eye contact more readily, Michele notes.

The changes go beyond the lo’i, Laufou says. As new residents in the safe house realize how their labor at the lo’i can affect the taro, something clicks and they connect that to how their chores help the household function. “I see them actually understanding what hard work is and what it can do, and how it helps more than just themselves but other people around them as well,” he says.

One young man’s story

Wyatt Allen, age 21, says he probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school “if it weren’t for Uncle Dean and going to the lo’i.” He did not live at Ke Kama Pono, but he had struggled in school and skipped class. To engage students like him, a high school teacher decided to try an alternative approach to learning – the Hoʻokuaʻāina mentoring program.

Working in the lo’i taught Mr. Allen perseverance. At times the tasks or the heat would seem too challenging, but he says he learned that “sometimes in life, it’s like that. You want to give up and drop everything, but you can’t. You just have to push through it.”

After Allen graduated from high school, he interned on the farm until he found another job last September.

The Wilhelms’ initial vision grew out of the support they received from their community during a rough patch early in their marriage. “We were crushed and had no hope,” Michele recalls, but people stuck by the couple.

“We were restored” through that support, Dean says. “And once you feel that, you can’t help but want to touch others and restore others as well.”

When they bought the property for the lo’i, it was a tangled rainforest that no developer wanted to touch. Clearing it felt like a never-ending challenge, they say. But looking out at the land, “I could see the taro growing” in my mind, Dean says. “And more importantly, I could see life. I could see people.”

A break from the outside world

Now, going to the taro patch is like leaving the outside world behind for a little while. As one drives down the dirt road to the lo’i, the noise of traffic on the nearby Pali Highway gives way to the sound of the taro leaves rustling in the wind.

Creating that quiet, peaceful space is key in helping the youths let their guard down, Michele says. “We saw these young boys with so much anger and hurt and pain coming with this rugged defense. It takes a couple weeks to get through that, but once they figure out that they can let it down in the mud,” she says, then they start saying things like “I feel so safe” or “I feel at peace.”

The Wilhelms hope that Hoʻokuaʻāina will continue to evolve to include more organizations with individuals who would benefit from the mentoring program. Already the nonprofit has expanded to include weekly community days to bring together people from the area and an internship program to mentor young adults from a variety of backgrounds.

The Wilhelms do sell the taro grown on the farm and hope that the revenue will help pay for the mentoring program in the future. But currently, much of it is funded by grants.

Mr. Pilien, the Hoʻokuaʻāina intern, says it’s hard to put into words the feeling of being at the lo’i, but he doesn’t want to leave.

“I know I can’t be there obtaining this feeling and this experience from Uncle Dean forever,” he says. So he hopes to build a similar program to teach others using farming. Much like the Wilhelms were touched by others’ investment in them, Pilien wants to pass along that feeling.

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How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups aiding young people:

Global Volunteers aims to advance peace, racial reconciliation, and mutual understanding between peoples. Take action: Volunteer in St. Lucia to help change the lives of children in poverty.

Globe Aware has a mission that includes working with children in slums and other disadvantaged youths. Take action: Contribute funds to build a community center in Romania for the Roma.

Seeds of Learning promotes learning in developing communities of Central America while educating volunteers about the region. Take action: Donate money to support students in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

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