There’s a soft rain soaking the undeniably magic soil of Maui as I pull up to the entrance of La’akea Village. After a few days in Paia, we’ve already spotted almost all of the places we had plans to visit. The community really is that small. La’akea’s friendly sign along the roadside leapt out to me the first day in town, just a short walk or drive up the road from the town center. From the street, La’akea seems like just another small store front tucked into the cascading foliage that is so synonymous with the island. But upon closer glance, there’s more than just the Country Store out front. Tucked behind the public facing store selling local goods and produce, La’akea Village is truly that: a community, a work space, a home.
Since its initial inception almost 20 years ago, La’akea has grown from a small organization of concerned community members and parents to a government supported housing and work space for young people and adults with developmental disabilities. La’akea is made up of both day and residential programs, allowing local participants to slowly incorporate themselves into the La’akea lifestyle while maintaining and developing skills that will apply to their day to day lives outside of the village as well. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Sarah Menzies, La’akea’s Executive Director. Menzies spoke to La’akea’s encouragement of its participants to follow their passions, recruiting members of the community to offer lessons, mentorships, and more in specific fields of interest be it music, sewing, jewelry, and more. Read our full interview below.
Menzies: I was going to university in Honolulu and my godmother lives here and was friends with one of the founding members. I was here for two weeks and she said, “Hey we’re going to go volunteer on this land for a new project starting, it’s really cool.” In two days we cleared all of these just old junk cars and cardboard and a bunch of junk and put it into a container and hauled it out. But I heard the vision and I was inspired by the theme “Anthroposophic roots”, which is really like seeing the spiritual being. Seeing the wholeness of every individual and then having communities where every person has meaningful contributions and real friendships to come into. So I had this vision; just one little shot of it. I saw ponds with ducks and people fishing and a woman walking across the lawn with art supplies and I just thought, “I am going to live and work here one day.” Two and a half years ago I had been living here for awhile and I got a call from my aunt saying “Hey do you want to work part time as an office assistant?” So I did. I’ve just gotten to wear a lot of different hats here and work in supervision and program management and I’m doing the business side of things now. It’s growing. We have 12 acres total, what we are using now is just about 2 acres but the intention is to have housing for up to 50 - 75 people. So adults with special needs, families, staff, and the Maui community that want to live in an intentional setting with that vision of really creating a village to where I’m not just coming in to get a paycheck and going home and leaving. But that those real friendships, especially for the people with special needs who this is their life so it’s weird for people to be like “oh okay I’m off now” like what does it mean to be off? We’re here and living. So that’s the idea is that we begin to work within the communities so that we’re really giving back to the land that’s giving back to us.
Menzies: It started in 2005. Maui County in the state of Hawaii was gifted the land. So we lease it from the state. It’s a 50 year lease but we’ll be able to renew it because the state supports us in what we’re doing. We’re funded by Medicaid Waiver. It’s a federal funding so what the waiver is is basically the idea that all people are born with these certain rights, but people with special needs have a waiver to that because they don’t have the same abilities as your neurotypical person so there’s funding for them. We are funded through the Department of Health, so each participant or client that comes in with a certain amount of service hours per week. So we provide services to help them with their goals. From basic health and hygiene and safety to getting a job to like Abby (a participant in the program) wants to be a rockstar so she’s taking college classes and singing lessons. We’ve also got a public speaking class. And David (participant) wants to get a driver’s license, which might not ever happen, but learning how to read and taking the written test are things he can do which are all really great learning opportunities.
So we have the day program and we have 17 participants and then we also have a residence across the street with 5 participants who live there pretty much full time. A lot of them go home on the weekends. And then we have four crew members or coworkers that live in the house that are doing all the meals together and shared living.
Menzies: The community, all of us, in the community will say [for example] “We really want to do a hula class.” So we’ll put a little message out that says “What hula teacher wants to come for like six weeks on a Tues/Thurs afternoon and teach this activity?” A lot of their goals are around cooking and baking and skills of daily living.That’s really important. So we’re getting our kitchen license but until then we can’t do a lot of value edit product to sell in our store. So this guy Ritchie came along and for the past year and a half we’ve been doing a dog biscuit baking activity every Monday or Friday. So Friday the whole crew will make dog biscuits and learn about [the process]. So we have a “hip and joint” biscuit with turmeric and coconut oil and then a “skin and coat” biscuit with a lot of healthy fats like avocado. They’re learning about health through that and then we go up to _____ Friday and get to sell it. So they really have that community engagement and exchange. That’s really what a lot of the intention is here too.
We’re sitting at the Country Store, and the idea there isn’t that we’re making money as a business off of it as a store, but that it provides a program for the participants to learn customer service skills, they harvest the produce and put it on the shelves, using the POS system and debit cards and just that exchange with the community. But also it’s an opportunity for the community to come here. We see someone with down syndrome or autism on the street but we’re in passing so there’s not a lot of opportunity to get to know them and have a conversation. The idea here is that we’re creating a really safe environment that’s their turf, their environment, and then we come in as guests. They get to give tours, help in the store, and have that sense of confidence. Then we get to have the experience of getting to know this population that is so very sweet and have quite a lot to offer us.
Menzies: Word of mouth, but also the Department of Health has case management and they’ll give an array of agencies on islands giving the background of who does what. One of the things that appeals to families is that every mother or father with a child with special needs will say “Okay, this is great as a day program but I’m not going to be here forever. Then what?” We’re looking at the “then what”. We need a village to where if the parent dies and there’s no other family, brother, sister, to take care [of the special needs person], there’s a community. We say “it takes a village”. It’s not easy to be in community. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable and real and hear feedback and do that inner work to show up in community. It’s difficult but it’s easier in a way to have our nuclear family and isolate ourselves and show the outside world this kind of societally appropriate view. That’s not necessarily a village. A village is a sense of vulnerabilty and really being courageous enough to leave and learn from our heart and share that. I think we have a lot more of a tribal sense of community if it were easy. We face a lot of the challenges that any community might and also working within this system that is top down. We have managers and authorities, but there’s also a sense of equality. There’s this question for me and a lot of us here “What does that equality look like while still being able to function as a system, as a Medicaid Waiver provider within the Department of Health?” So there’s contradictions inherently in it but to me its really exciting to have a plot of land with people who are showing up like you, maybe you found us and were like “oh this sounds cool and interesting and on the edge”, and yeah we all want community and special needs is a really awesome population to be with but what is that? I find that anyone who comes in the gates, no matter their socioeconomic background, their demographic or what have you. There’s a sense of open heartedness when they come in just knowing who we are and the population we work with. So it’s cool to be able to watch that and see it.
Menzies: This isn’t a congregate setting, this is kind of just a hub in a way. So because they’re adults we really empower person-centered planning. We offer a lot on a daily basis but it’s always a choice. They’re always given a choice. We arrive at about 9 in the morning, clean up the campus, feed the ducks and the bunnies, and then we gather as a community and go through the schedule of the day. We do a 5 minute morning mindfulness meditation so we’ll close our eyes and just go through the body, the joints, getting connected with our breath, taking a moment to look around and really see who is present. Then we’ll transition into some sort of fitness. So we have Chris and Bryan who volunteer every other monday for fitness, we’ve got a zumba class and yoga and eurhytmy which is like a therapeutic movement from the Waldorf Schooling. Then we transition and open up the Country Store, we’ll get in the garden either doing seeding or planting, transplanting, harvesting, and then whoever is not in the garden will usually chooses to help out in the kitchen. We’re all making a lunch everyday that feeds the whole community that’s here. We have a shared lunch and then the afternoon sometimes we’ll have activities like dance or the dog biscuit bakery but that’s also when a lot of people will go to their jobs in the greater communities. We’ve got [participants working at] the sushi shop Nuka, TJ Maxx, and just different jobs that we support people to go to. Then we’ll clean up campus together and have fun different projects, make bath bombs for the store or jam and stuff like that.
Menzies: We have fruit trees all around campus at the moment. We’ve got sweet potato and chard and lettuces and herbs and just a lot of greens. Most of what we’re growing supplies our own food in our kitchen. We’ve got a program going where Saturdays the crew goes up to the Farmer’s Market and we’ll gather donations from farmers and either use it or sell it. We also feature other local businesses in the store like The Honey Shop, we’ve got these little beeswax candles and honey that’s made from Maui. And we also have local artists that sell their art here. And then Christian who is a participant here, his goal is to be a jeweler at Macy’s. So we help him learn how to make jewelry and he sells his jewelry here. Really that’s what we’re moving into with this, really being able to feature the participants. Like [La’akea participant] Kat, she’s been learning how to sew as a part of her goal. She’s making reusable bags out of old t shirts and other recycled material that we can sell in the store with information about her. So that sense of being able to feature the participants and what they create and what their creative expressions are.
Menzies: One of the things that is really important to know is that we all have special needs. While we say people with special needs are in their own category, to really look within ourselves and say “What are my needs?” Sometimes we partner up with somebody who is a good cook because we’re not a good cook, so naturally we’re building little villages all around us. I think that as a society or global community or village if you will, to take a moment and not say, “Oh this person has a disability”, and feel sorry for them, but to really see what their abilities might be and how they can contribute in a way that we’re not able to and vice versa. Really lifting up everybody’s brightest light and potential and seeing them in that way. And then just having conversations with people. Get to know your neighbor!
La’akea Village is located at 639 Baldwin Avenue, Paia, HI 96779. The Country Store is open weekly, Monday-Friday 11am-4:30pm.
LA A KEA FOUNDATION IT IS A PLACE WHERE ADULTS WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES CAN GO TO LIVE, LEARN AND WORK WITH OTHERS IN AN ATMOSPHERE OF CARE & RESPECT.’
Compound name composed of the elements la'a (sacred, holy, consecrated) and kea (light): hence, "light sacredness." The word makes reference to sacred light or sacred things