Original story published on Ka Wai Ola by Annabelle Le Jeune, Partners in Development Foundation Program Outreach Specialist, click here to view.
When Michelle Omerod was in high school, she witnessed many of her friends and peers shuffle in and out of foster homes. Some homes, she remembers, were less than ideal for youth in need of extra emotional support.
“My friends were really traumatized,” she said.
That’s why, when Michelle and her husband, Aaron, bought their home in Keaʻau, they opened up their doors to hānai (care for) keiki in foster care – especially teenagers. They currently have six hānai keiki and three biological keiki – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Since 2020, the Omerods have fostered over 20 ʻōpio (youth). They have also extended a helpful hand to including numerous other keiki in the community who just wanted a safe place to stay and feel loved, even if only temporarily.
Aaron Omerod is a correctional officer. With his background and training, he shares with Michelle how to identify behavior indicative of trauma. Together, they support their keiki as best they can.
“Nobody wants to take on teens because of their ‘baggage.’ But this is their last chance before they become an adult,” Aaron said. “This is our chance to make a difference before we see them on the other side of the bars.”
In Hawaiʻi, there are approximately 1,200 keiki in foster care, and nearly 300 are teenagers. More than half of the incarcerated youth and adult population in Hawaiʻi have a Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander background, and many of those were involved in systems of foster care, child welfare, mental health services, special education, or family court.
“We really value the foster homes we are privileged to work with and have a special place in our hearts for our teen homes like the Omerod ʻohana,” said Alana Power, project director of Project Pilina. “What they communicate to these young lives in foster care is that you are worth loving and investing time in – and that kindness they share in providing a safe home makes such a difference. We hope to empower more community members to do the same.”
Project Pilina is a statewide program that recruits and guides resource caregiver applicants through the first steps of the general licensing process. The program, under Partners in Development Foundation, seeks to build relationships within island communities by raising awareness about foster care. For anyone ready to start the application process, a community liaison will serve and assist in the initial steps of the general licensing process to foster keiki.
For those who are unsure about taking the first steps in becoming resource caregivers, there are many other ways to support children in the Hawaiʻi foster care system.
Every month, Project Pilina hosts virtual statewide information sessions with community liaisons open to anyone interested in learning more about foster care, volunteer opportunities, and other ways to get involved. Participants may also have an opportunity to hear directly from former youth in foster care or current resource caregivers.
Community events like the East Hawaiʻi’s Job Readiness Fair are designed to help youth in foster care and those with resource caregivers. The event focuses on workforce preparedness and basic financial education and youth who attend will be able to choose gift cards for Old Navy, Macy’s, or Jean’s Warehouse to purchase job-ready attire. The next job readiness fair will be held at the Connect Point Church in Hilo on Saturday, May 6 from 8:30 a.m.- 1:00 p.m. and all interested youth are encouraged to attend.
While the Omerod ʻohana will continue to open their heart and home to keiki in care, they urge the larger community to support the overall foster care system.
“Honestly, it’s not even just for foster homes, really. Other people, too, should try to provide assistance for the state because they need help. There’re so many kids and there aren’t enough social workers. It’s not their fault. The foster care system struggles because they need more help,” Michelle said.
The Omerods sometimes experience challenges raising their hānai and biological keiki together, but they say that the rewards of supporting youth in foster care far outweigh the adversities.
The couple agrees that seeing the keiki overcome each boundary and obstacle thrown their way because of the situation they were born into inspires them to keep going.
Project PilinaThe next statewide information sessions are:May 1 at 6:00 p.m.June 7 at 12:00 p.m.Sessions will be on ZoomTo learn more go to: pidf.org/projectpilina