For children who come from broken homes, or suffer from disabilities, poverty or other hardships, getting a good education can seem like an impossible dream. But here are some who made it. Senior Writer Beverly Creamer looks at the difference a few programs and a few people have made in the lives of young adults and what it takes to succeed when the odds are stacked against you.
By sixth grade, Cedric Gates’ future already looked bleak: Severe childhood obesity had pushed his weight over 200 pounds. A year later things got worse: His mother collapsed at work and died from heart disease.
By the time he was 14, Gates was running with a wild crowd. At 15, he’d dropped out of Waianae High School. Tenth grade was behind him and nothing lay ahead.
“I didn’t feel I belonged in that structure of education,” he says now. “It wasn’t my learning style. I’m a kinetic learner. I need hands on with visual aids. That’s something that really works for me. And all my classes were by the book.”
Fortunately, a school counselor suggested Gates try a learning program called YouthBuild Honolulu. It’s part of a national network that helps dropouts and young people struggling in traditional school settings.
“It taught me some great values about hard work and caring for my community. Going to this program played a major role in who I am today.”
Who he is today is a college student, an active member of his community, a support for his family, and an inspiration to others.
YouthBuild became Gates’ lifeline. But it’s just one of many successful Hawaii programs that help young people with hardships get an education – inside or outside of schools and colleges. If Hawaii wants to build a 21st-century workforce – workers with good educations and technical skills plus people skills and leadership skills – then such programs will be essential. Here are some others who got an education because a government or nonprofit program was there to help them:
- Progressive blindness made higher education seem impossible for Monty Anderson. But Kokua Services at UH-Manoa kept his dreams alive and helped him toward a series of degrees, including a law degree and a doctorate in psychology.
- For Joy and Angela Gabriel, whose family was haunted by abuse, drug use and homelessness, the Boys and Girls Club was a source of kindness and the hope of a different life, and strengthened their leadership skills so they felt capable of entering college.
- Single mom Jodi Johnson struggled to raise her first two children with little money or support. Bridge to Hope provided a stipend and a job on campus to move her toward an advanced degree and a life of service to others.
“A lot of our participants are first-generation college attendees,” says Teresa Bill, statewide coordinator for Bridge to Hope, which is a partnership between the state Department of Human Services and UH. “People get a foot up and they go to work and they decide this education thing is something they really want to do.”Cedric Gates has overcome major problems of health and obesity, the grief of losing both parents to heart disease, and dropping out of high school at 15. Today he’s in college, involved in politics, and putting on healthy activities for families on the Waianae Coast through his nonprofit, Active Hawaii.
Along with the adrenalin rush of self-confidence that education provides, these individuals and many others in similar programs can look forward to a lifetime of higher earnings.
“One of the things about our program that’s really exciting is the earning potential,” says Bill. “If they don’t complete their degree, their average wages are about $14.80 an hour. But, if they complete a two-year associate of arts or science degree, their wages go up to $18.88 an hour. And those who complete a B.A. or B.S. degree are earning $23.92 an hour.
“Everybody’s earning more than minimum wage and, over time, the hope is they’ll be able to achieve a sustainable living wage for their families.”
Johnson is doing just that. Though it took her 10 years to complete her B.A., MSW and practicum in social work, she earns $60,000 a year, something she never imagined when she moved to Oahu from Kauai to find a better life.
“I would never have been successful without all of the assistance,” says Johnson, now program administrator for Healthy Start and Enhanced Healthy Start. As part of Child and Family Services in Ewa Beach, she supervises a staff of 13 who help hundreds of clients each year.
But her journey took a decade on public-assistance programs in addition to help from Bridge to Hope. There were setbacks despite her hard work, upheavals in her family life and an early sense of shame for needing welfare to survive and move forward.
“Not everyone wants to share about being on welfare,” she says, “but I’ve come a long way in my feelings of shame around that. Even when I didn’t feel comfortable being needy or feeling like a leech on society, I still knew that these resources I qualified for are in place for a reason. And, if I qualified for them, then I needed to take advantage of them.
“I’ve always been a person who reads all of the flyers and calls to apply to anything that’s applicable to me. Those resources are there to help you move into a place where you no longer need them.”
While effective and imaginative programs were crucial to their success, the individuals we talked with also spoke of the importance of finding people who believed in them, mentored them, and became trusted friends and confidantes. Angela Gabriel says the kindness and caring she and her sister encountered at the Boys and Girls Club and in their foster mother’s home were things they’d never known before. It helped them see that life could be different.
“It wasn’t until I got into a foster home and got involved with the Boys and Girls Club that my life really changed,” says Angela, the elder of the two Gabriel sisters, now 19 and a freshman in college at UH-Manoa. “There are a lot of stereotypes about foster homes, like they’ll treat you bad or won’t love you, and only want you for the money they’ll get from the state. I always heard stories like that. But it was the exact opposite. She was super kind. She listened to us. She wanted us to live better lives.
“I knew that these resources that I qualified for are in place for a reason.”
—Jodi Johnson, Who relied on welfare and other government assistance while getting her B.A. and master’s of social work degrees
“And when we went to the Club, it was like culture shock. They were so accepting. They didn’t put us down and always offered us opportunities like volunteering and going on these field trips. I’ve never experienced that type of thing in my life. They guided us through high school, and we have wonderful mentors like Lori Respicio and Ikona Keanu, who really acted like therapists. They took whatever we told them and showed us how to use that as motivation to keep moving forward to do better in our lives.”
The well-known Kauai Longitudinal Study, which followed all 698 children born on Kauai in 1955 until age 40, was one of the first to identify the importance of such support, showing in powerful terms why some people are resilient and thrive and may overcome early hardships. Researchers Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith discovered that a single caring person or involvement with a community or church group could make all the difference in keeping a troubled young person from serious harm. In a series of books about the project, they specifically noted other factors creating resilience in high-risk children as they successfully transitioned into adulthood, including caring teachers, elder mentors and caring adults outside the family.
Cedric Gates is a prime example of the Kauai study’s findings at work.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it,” says Gates, now 21. “Anything we put our minds to, we can achieve. I try to encourage everyone I know who is doing terrible in school and has dropped out, to jump into the YouthBuild program.” It offers training in trades like carpentry, painting and plumbing, then pays students to both attend school and to work.
Within a year of joining YouthBuild, Gates had begun to change. He started a vegetarian diet to lose weight, saved enough money from his stipend to buy a car and gained a new respect for his father, who was struggling to hold the family together after his wife died. And Gates felt that the program had given him a renewed sense of hope about his life and his future, and a new sense of faith in himself.
Today, he’s a Leeward Community College student looking toward a career in nutrition or medicine. In 2011, with inspiration from his entrepreneurial father, he and his brother launched their own nonprofit, Active Hawaii. The goal: share what they’ve learned about health, and bring healthy, fun, free events to families on the Waianae Coast. Last year, he made a solid showing in his first run for the state Legislature.
Gates was honored by then Gov. Neil Abercrombie as Outstanding Advocate for Children and Youth in 2013. Even his father’s death last year from heart disease didn’t sabotage his forward movement, though he cut back his classes to have extra time to help restabilize his family.
“Going to this program played a major role in who I am today.”
—Cedric Gates, graduate of the YouthBuild program
“I came to realize that life is real, and we have to cherish the time we have, including the time with our loved ones,” says Gates.
For Monty Anderson, the challenges of life began early in childhood, when he began losing his sight. He scraped through high school, but felt lost until he and his father moved to Maui. Hawaii changed everything, he says.
“Hawaii helped me focus on my future,” says Anderson, now 42, and the holder of five degrees from the UH system. He’s currently working on his doctorate in legal psychology and just finished writing the Hawaii Bar exam. He’s also employed part time as a paralegal in the state Judiciary’s Office of Disciplinary Council.
“What was really strange is I started listening to these audio books from the Library of Congress for the heck of it. One of the first I read was ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ It had such an emotional impact on me that I developed a love of reading and from there I wanted to go to college to learn in a more systematic way.”
But Anderson says he would never have completed the B.A., M.A. and advanced degrees if not for Kokua Services at UH-Manoa.
“Everything was just so difficult: living on campus, having to get up every day and walk into my classes, take notes and study. It was almost overwhelming … for someone who is disabled, and Kokua handled all that.”
Anderson told a Kokua worker what classes he desired and the worker registered for him. He told them the books he needed and they bought them and scanned them page by page, so his special computer could turn them into audio that he could listen to.
“They scanned hundreds of books,” he said. “That was a huge effort. It was just so wonderful.
“They were (also) a liaison between me and the bureaucracy so if I had a problem with some part of the system, like paying my bill, they would talk to that department and get answers for me. And when you were signing up for a class they offered to reach out to your professors and let them know. The professors love Kokua. It just makes a big difference.”
“It was almost overwhelming … for someone who is disabled, and Kokua (Services) handled all that.”
—Monte Anderson, Who is legally blind, talking about support he received while getting his UH-Manoa degrees
But it was also Anderson’s drive to complete what he started that helped keep him going. “Personally, I’ve been one who always wants to finish something after I start it. That keeps me going. When I put a lot of resources into something and drop it, I have nothing to show for all of that,” he says.
“If I finish, I have a degree, and you can’t throw that away.”
For the Gabriel sisters, the motivation is different. With a difficult family life behind them, both are determined never to go back to living with hopelessness and dread. For Angela, it means studying nursing so she can help others; for Joy, it’s about pursuing a career in public policy so she can change laws.
But it took Joy, especially, a long time to reach this point.
“I wanted to be invisible,” Joy remembers when she first joined the Boys and Girls Club at age 14. “At the time I had a really ugly haircut, like a boy, and got teased a lot. I automatically thought this would be just like everything else. I was afraid people wouldn’t like me and would judge me. But the kids were so different from others. They accept you for who you are. They don’t make harsh judgments. Every kid was just so nice to me. After awhile I just felt comfortable.”
Today, Joy is 18 and studying at Leeward Community College and dreaming of applying to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to pursue public policy and, maybe, law.
In that homey Boys and Girls Club building that hugs a corner on the Fort Weaver Road side of Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, the Gabriel girls discovered that life’s challenges had helped give them strength, resilience and leadership skills. With their new foster “siblings,” they took classes, played games after school, made new friends, and discovered how to use life experiences to their advantage.
“But the kids were so different from others. They accept you for who you are.”
—Joy Gabriel, Describing her welcome at the Boys and Girls Club
“They really promote positive behaviors and being a mentor, being a leader, helping others,” says Joy of the club. “I like how they give you opportunities to do good things, and how the leaders are just fun to hang around with. And with the Leaders in Training program (that she joined), it’s not someone else leading you. You’re your own leader, not a follower. It’s up to you to make your own schedule and how you want to train yourself and be a part of helping with your community.”
Last year, Joy was named Youth of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club in Ewa Beach, and her sister was a runner-up. As college students now, they have futures neither could have imagined a few years ago.
“When I come back now, it’s like memory lane,” says Joy. “Everyone remembers my name. When someone recognizes you and looks up to you, it’s the best feeling.”
A Bridge for Welfare Recipients
BY BEVERLY CREAMER
Teresa Bill goes to work every day at UH’s Bridge to Hope program knowing that she makes a difference in people’s lives.
Bridge to Hope began 15 years ago to help welfare recipients, victims of domestic violence and struggling single parents re-enter education and, ultimately, the workforce. So far, Bill says, it has helped more than 700 people earn degrees and find more fulfilling careers.
As statewide program coordinator, Bill sees the dramatic change the program offers to people who once felt they had nothing. She says 90 percent of program participants at four-year colleges graduate – a much higher graduation rate than college averages.
“One of the difficulties is that many welfare-participating women have been subject to domestic violence. Nationally, about 60 percent of welfare participants have been abused. Domestic violence and the inability to have a second adult wage is one of the big drivers of welfare participation.”
Bridge to Hope, a partnership between the state Department of Human Services and UH, aims to help welfare recipients leave public assistance behind. As participants take classes, they also need to work or volunteer, and many are offered positions on their campuses that are designed to complement students’ lives.
Bill says the average Bridge to Hope participant is 34 years old with three children; 90 percent are women.
Even if a woman manages to leave an abusive relationship, she faces challenges. “They go from nothing to a shelter,” says Bill. “They’re safe, but now they need to rebuild a life for themselves. They know that if they don’t have education, they won’t be able to get a job that will support their family.”
That’s exactly where Bridge to Hope comes in.
“One of our graduates said, ‘People will say you’re going to school because it’s easy,’ but when I got a job, I was so happy because all I had to work was from 9 to 5. My weekends were free to be with my family. There isn’t a lot of time when you’re a student. You’re a mom, a student, a worker. You’re looking after your family and, at night and on weekends, you’re doing homework. The only hour I got to myself was riding the bus.’”
Program graduate Jodi Johnson believes that support programs like Bridge to Hope were essential to her completing her B.A. and master’s of social work. She says she also received help from food stamps, the state’s First to Work program, Med-Quest (the state’s Medicaid program), Child and Family Services’ former AmeriCorps program, Alu Like, Head Start, Hawaii Community Action Program and Parents and Children Together’s Family Peace Center.
Path to a Future
BY BEVERLY CREAMER
YouthBuild offers a second chance to young people who dropped out of school or face other serious challenges.
The Honolulu city-run program provides hands-on training in painting, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and other real-world skills, while students work toward a high school diploma. YouthBuild also partners with local agencies so students can put their training to work, renovating or building low-income housing, while earning a daily stipend.
“We help people who are disadvantaged, whether they have limited financial resources, lack education or have backgrounds that are serious barriers to employment like a criminal history,” says Leinaala Nakamura, assistant administrator of the city’s WorkHawaii Division, where the YouthBuild program is housed. It is run by the city, with support from federal workforce-training funds.
“Seventy-five percent (of our participants) are dropouts, or individuals enrolled in an alternative education program. Besides having that status they need to either be a member of a low-income family or in foster care or a youthful or adult offender with a disability, or a child of an incarcerated parent or a migrant youth. Because we’ve been around for many years, we’ve developed some really strong relationships with schools. Many have tried other programs, but, for some reason, didn’t get their goals met, so they turn to us.”
Nakamura says the one-year program serves people ages 17 and a half to 24. They can be high school graduates who need further training or education in order to find solid employment.
“We give them the message that they have decided to begin a journey of transformation, that, ‘You folks are part of the next pipeline of employees and college students,’ ” she says.
The program has only enough money for about 37 people each year, Nakamura says. The curriculum is nationally certified and involves assistance from both the state Department of Education, which provides the diploma studies, and the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, which offers the construction-skills training. Each week, participants work on a real job site.
“We’re fortunate to have two on-site construction partners,” says Nakamura. “Self-Help Housing Corp. of Hawaii is one and right now we’re helping executive director Claudia Shay with a project out in Maili, building 75 homes. She helps low-income families, first-time homeowners, and they build their own homes using a sweat-equity model. Whenever Claudia has projects, we’re there to offer our services. Another partner is the state Public Housing Authority. With those folks we help renovate or rehab rental units.”
Nakamura says that, since the program began in 2000, it has been able to help more than 500 young people move into careers or education.
“We adhere to a mental toughness standard to make sure our young people are educated and voting, and know what their civil rights are,” says Nakamura.
All of the needed supplies – including a bus pass – are free to participants. “If one of our participants gets into an apprenticeship program, we buy the tools, the uniform,” says Nakamura. “We pay for the caps and gowns to graduate. … And at least 70 percent of our folks can get into employment and keep it.”
Kokua for the Disabled Students
BY BEVERLY CREAMER
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required that colleges provide services and help students with disabilities. Eighteen years later, partly because of a series of lawsuits, Congress radically enlarged the definition.
In the past, disabilities primarily included blindness, deafness and immobility. Not after 2008.
“Congress said, ‘Stop restricting,’ ” says Ann Ito, director of Kokua Services at UH-Manoa. “It was meant to be broad and, now, it’s super, super broad. Any person with a physical or mental disability that substantially restricts one or more life activity is able to receive services.
“The definition has moved on to embrace every manner of physical or mental restriction, including elements that people may not have thought of before. All of our major life systems – respiratory, digestive, circulatory, immune, reproductive, skin – all are vital to the human being, and fall under this definition.”
Ito said Kokua Services at Manoa currently assists 900 students, but the number will probably reach 1,400 this year as new people seek help almost daily, with the majority suffering nontraditional or hidden disabilities.
“Our largest categories are students with learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities or health disabilities. New populations include students on the autism spectrum and returning veterans. The admission criteria they meet are the same as everyone else and universities are forbidden to ask, ‘Do you have a disability?’ ”
Increasingly, across the nation, Ito says, freshmen come to college with a psychiatric disability.
“There are more incoming freshmen with a diagnosed psychiatric disability and a history of treatment,” she says. Disability services provided at UH-Manoa include: priority registration, faculty-liaison assistance, note-taking (125 students are employed as note-takers for 350 others); alternate format conversion (for instance, for the sight-impaired); adaptive furniture, and other individualized assistance.
Ito says the UH-Manoa administration has been financially supportive of Kokua Services. “We have had additional staff and resources to meet the needs of this growing population,” says Ito. While all 10 campuses provide some assistance, Kokua Services at Manoa alone has nine full-time staff members, an administrator and three auxiliary aid specialists.
What aren’t covered are temporary conditions, says Ito. Drug abuse is not considered a disability, but, if a student is in recovery, services may be provided. “We do not serve people with temporary conditions. The conditions must persist for six months or more. If they break both legs, it’s unquestionably a hardship, but it’s not Kokua’s responsibility.”
A Second Home for Youths
BY BEVERLY CREAMER
The Boys and Girls Club has changed the lives of young people in Hawaii for 40 years. This year alone, it has 2,000 members between the ages of 7 and 17 at its 14 club sites, says Tim Motts, president and CEO.
“The Boys and Girls Club has been around for over 100 years nationally,” says Motts. “We’re the largest youth service agency in the world, serving over 4 million young people at 4,000 clubhouses.
“We work in all communities throughout Hawaii, especially in those communities that need us the most. And we’ve seen tremendously positive results from our kids who stay involved with the Boys and Girls Club. Our high-school graduation rates are huge. Statewide, the rate is somewhere around 80 percent, but our kids graduate at a rate in the mid-90 percent.”
The Ewa Beach Clubhouse – named Hale Pono, with a gym, multipurpose building and teen center – was built in 2002, thanks to funding from the Campbell Estate, community grants and the public.
Motts said the clubs become second homes to the children. “Some of these kids, we see them more than their parents do,” he says. “The parents are working two and three jobs, doing their best, and our clubhouse has become a safe haven for the kids. You hear the kids say, ‘This is my second home,’ and call the staff Auntie and Uncle. They feel that kinship to them.”
Lori Respicio, program director of the Ewa Beach club, is both mentor and mom, and universally known as “Auntie Lori” to the 125 to 140 young people who inhabit this welcoming space each week.
“The secret sauce is quality adult relationships that help these kids be the best they can be,” says Motts. “We serve kids who need positive mentors and role models in their lives and adults who they know will be there for them. Our goal is to provide self-esteem and assist in making them successful adults.”
The program offers a wide range of classes and includes homework help, tutoring, leadership training, sports, cooking skills and far more.
“Every time you come here it’s like coming home,” says Angela Gabriel, who spent several years at the club after school, and who, now that she’s 19 and in college, plans to volunteer there over the summer.
Why Do Some Children Overcome Hardship
BY BEVERLY CREAMER
During their Kauai Longitudinal Study, which followed every child born on Kauai in 1955 until their 40th birthdays, researchers Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith discovered that certain factors determined resilience in children with troubled lives. Their findings, published in a series of books, have helped communities develop assistance programs.
The major factors they identified:
- Reasoning ability and the ability to problem solve.
- Emotional support from adults outside the family. A single, caring adult could be all that’s needed to turn a life around.
- The ability to accomplish a task alone.
- Inner direction, meaning the belief that the individual can impact his or her own destiny.
- Sociability, including empathy for others, an outgoing personality, being open to learn new things, being a team player able to help others.
- Temperaments that elicit a positive response from others.
- The ability to take advantage of opportunities that are offered.
- The ability to see a positive future, despite current difficulties.
- Marriage to a stable partner.
- The ability to seek support.
By the Numbers:
How Much More Pay for More Education
A recently released U.S. Census Bureau study showed that American adults with professional degrees earned almost five times as much per month on average as those without a high school diploma. Here are the average monthly earnings:
- No high school diploma: $2,450
- High school diploma: $3,200
- A.A. degree: $4,200
- B.A.: $5,400
- M.A.: $6,700
- Advanced degree: $11,900
Source: “What’s It Worth: Field of Training & Economic Status in 2009,” a study by Stephanie Ewert for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many other studies have found the same thing: More education is associated with higher lifetime earnings. Higher earnings and better educational credentials, in turn, strengthen individuals, families and communities, and lead to a stronger workforce and more engaged citizens.