Puna youth have spoken and county leaders are listening.
On Friday night, dozens gathered in the cafeteria of Pahoa High and Intermediate School for a youth-focused SpeakOut event, the input from which will be used to help guide Hawaii County’s recovery from the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano.
As part of the event, three teens from different Puna schools sat on a discussion panel with Mayor Harry Kim, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.
They answered questions about what it means to be “Puna and Hawaii Island strong,” the challenges their generation faces, and what supports are needed in the future, among others.
“For me, ‘Puna Strong’ is about working together as a community and being able to move forward as one,” said Travis Chai Andrade, 18, who attends Kamehameha Schools. “I think that really comes from my experiences as a paddler because every practice, you get in the canoe, your coach comes in, and they’re always telling you hit together, reach together and paddle together.
“I like that metaphor for ‘Puna Strong’ because in a community, there’s so many different people in so many different groups doing different things, and just like in the canoe, you don’t need to be on the same page to move forward, but your canoe’s not going to move forward quickly and your canoe’s a lot more likely to huli over.”
Katina Gronowski, 18, a student at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Public Charter School, said “Puna Strong” shows the community’s resiliency “and our community’s filled with such love and compassion, and we all come together to make something very strong.”
For Nino Pelton, 16, a student a Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School, “Puna Strong” means community helping community, which is “based on my experience when the lava came and it took our school.”
The Hawaiian focus charter school’s campus was destroyed by lava during the eruption.
Andrade said the biggest challenge faced by his generation, is one that past generations have faced, too — the question of what’s next.
That question can be considered not only from a recovery standpoint, he said, but “also as we come to the end of our high school careers, trying to figure out what jobs we want or where to go to college.”
For Andrade, “liminality,” is “a good word to describe kind of where we are now.”
“It’s a word that means you’re in a transitional state,” he explained. “You’re not really here, you’re not really there, you’re in the in-between. And so, I think that it’s a time for us to grow and to figure out what next. But at the same time, people always tell us that the jobs aren’t going to be here, that the jobs with big salaries are on the mainland or on Oahu. And, so, you kind of have to choose between whether or not you want that job or you want to stay here with your family, with your culture and with your roots.”
Students today are preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist, Andrade said.
Opportunities like this, “where we can come together and share, and you know, maybe we can meet some people in those industries, who have ideas for us … ”
Pelton, however, said the biggest challenge his generation faces is that “kids these days are not being heard.”
Many kids keep problems to themselves, he said. That issue can be addressed by having a place where kids can go and feel safe.
“Like if you go to the school and you feel safe, you have friends, the teachers care about you — that’s just the main thing, somebody caring for you and that’s when you feel safe, then you can open up and (talk about) your problems.”
The students were also asked what kind of resources they wish Puna had to support young people in achieving their goals.
“The resources that would help my school is having a school campus,” Pelton said.
After the eruption destroyed the Kua O Ka La campus, the school relocated, but students are now at different locations or take courses online.
“Without a campus, it just doesn’t feel like everybody’s together,” he said.
Andrade said because there are many opportunities that can’t be anticipated and much still unknown, “that it really is just a matter of having those places to come together, where we can talk as a community and understand what other people are sharing” and creating opportunities to “explore these ideas that interest us that could also benefit the community.”
Gronowski said students should have more places for extracurricular activities and community resources, “and places where they can go and collaborate with other students and take charge of situations, and just a safer spot for kids to express their ideas. Also, internships for students going into college or just preparing for their lives as adults.”
Kierkiewicz, who was visibly emotional responding to comments made by the student panelists, said after the discussion, “I never like to presume that I know what the youth of today are thinking.”
“For me, I was really stoked because many of the questions that were asked were ones that I came up with,” she said. “And so hearing their answers, I think, provided a window into what they’re thinking about — for themselves, for their community.”
Kierkiewicz said she agreed with Lee Loy — who had said more space needs to be created “for our youth to have a place at the table” — because “in my mind, a lot of decisions are going to be made that affects them, and so they should have a say in what those decisions are, because they have to live with the results of them.”
Following the panel, Gronowski said it was “really big” that county leaders were able to listen to what they had to say, “rather than just hearing about it on the video tape or (in) a letter, because being in person does make an impact.”
It’s important to listen to younger voices “because it’s our future,” she said.
“… Yes we need to recover, but we have to recover in ways to make us more resilient, but the way we become resilient is to be open to these kinds of ideas that young people have and the aspiration they have, and how do we work together to make that work,” said Bob Agres, manager for disaster recovery community engagement and collaboration. “I mean, resilient recovery is about them. Yes, we have to take care of the people who have been impacted (by the eruption) and we have to take care of what happens in the next 10 to 20 years.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.