On the Leeward Coast of Oʻahu there is a large family house way back on Waiʻanae Valley Road. There are family photos scattered through the rooms, showing over a dozen different children of varying ages. Handmade keiki art is on the refrigerator. From the upper level balcony, past the farms and over the trees, you can see the ocean.
“We watched Hōkūleʻa come in from up here,” explains the home’s owner, Allene Uesugi. “All of us came up here to watch.” Allene Uesugi is an on-call Recruitment Specialist with our Hui Hoʻomalu program. A Kalihi native, she is also a veteran Resource Caregiver of over 30 years.
Resource Caregivers provide safe, healthy, and nurturing environments for children who have been removed from their family homes. The children can be any age, from infants to 18 year-olds. The ultimate goal of fostering children is to reunite them with their families.
“The saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ rings true for children in foster care,” says Stephanie Helbush. Stephanie is the Project Director for Hui Hoʻomalu, our program that recruits, screens, processes, trains, licenses, and supports Resource Families. The wide array of services means there are several staff like Allene, who works part-time and on-call.
Allene has been with Hui Hoʻomalu for several years and has fostered over 300 keiki from all walks of life here in Hawaiʻi nei. Her three biological children were already grown and out of the house when she decided to become a Resource Caregiver. Allene says she missed having children around her house and felt a divine pull to become a foster parent.
She and her husband, Arthur, served as an ’emergency shelter’ for foster children for many years. They would take in any child at any hour, day or night, understanding the urgency and need for such selfless families. Allene had to stop the ’emergency shelter’ designation after Arthur’s untimely death from a heart attack nearly a decade ago.
Allene says she thought she knew everything about parenting, but that by opening her home to foster children she has learned so much more. Allene states that it’s important for both the keiki and their Resource Caregivers to understand that where the children are is not their fault — it’s circumstances beyond their control and the Resource Caregivers are there to do whatever they can to help.
“All these kids need is a jump start. They need somebody to pull them along until they can get really fired up and continue on,” Allene says. “It will take a Resource Caregiver to help them know how important they are.”
Kanani Moananu is a 29 year-old who works in Kapolei. She went into the foster care system at the age of 12 before coming into Allene and Arthur’s home. Kanani describes how important it was for her, and is for every foster child, to feel loved when they come into a stranger’s home.
“If you’re taking the time or the step to actually expand your family, knowing that these are not your biological kids… these kids that are considered ‘foster’ are actually kids that’s looking for love, a safe home, a family that they can be part of and not feel like an outsider. And that’s what I found with Mom Allene and Dad Arthur.”
Kanani is one of the lucky ones. Too often keiki “age out” of foster care: when they turn 18, they are expected to move out and find housing, jobs, transportation — despite many of these young people still being in high school. Young adults who age out of the system are much more at risk for not finishing high school, experiencing homelessness, drug abuse, and incarceration.
Besides the physical effects, former foster children — and especially those who age out — often experience a number of emotional and psychological issues. 25% of keiki who age out are said to experience direct effects of PTSD.
For Kanani, she says she “broke the wheel” that both sides of her family have been spinning for generations. She was the first in three generations to graduate high school. Kanani explains that while she respects her family and honors the decisions they make for themselves, ‘their path’ wasn’t for her.
Nearly 50% of the keiki in foster care in Hawaiʻi are Native Hawaiian. The importance of finding Native Hawaiian families cannot be understated. These families help the keiki on a cultural level — adjusting to foster care is difficult enough.
But there is still an open need for any loving family. Some groups, like older children and teenagers or larger sibling groups are especially difficult to place. Many people might be apprehensive about bringing a teenager into their home, or suddenly finding four children running around, but the need is there. A common phrase at Hui Hoʻomalu goes,, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. There are thousands of teens in foster care who would love to put up with you.”
Becoming a Resource Caregiver may seem like a daunting task, but there are so many organizations that are here to support you at every step of the process. Our Hui Hoʻomalu program partners with local organizations like Family Programs Hawaiʻi and Catholic Charities to provide ongoing support and retention services.
“We need folks to give the gift of foster care, and call us to see if this is something you can do for our youth,” said Stephanie. These children are not able to be in their home environment and desperately need a place to call home during this difficult time.
Allene gets emotional when she talks about the foster children that have come through her doors. From infants to college-age, every one of them has had an impact on her life and how she sees the world. To her, becoming a Resource Caregiver is one of the most important decisions someone can make.
“Open your heart. We always have that saying: ‘one heart, one mind, one breath is the aloha way’. To keep our families together you have to embrace them. We have that same ʻohana. It’s not just our ʻohana. People outside of our ʻohana is ʻohana. People in need is ‘ohana.”
When asked if she had a message for people thinking about becoming a Resource Caregiver, Allene had one thing to say:
“You can make an impact on a life. You just have to want to do it.