Hui o nā Mākua Ho‘okahi o Kaua‘i
Marilyn Mohler, founder and executive director of Hui o Nā Mākua Ho‘okahi o Kaua‘i – Single Parents of Kaua‘i, has been described as a "one-woman, customized, social-service agency." She’s also been described as an "angel." Affectionately known as "the Hui" by its members, Marilyn heads up a grassroots, non-profit organization that, since its inception in 2000, has helped nearly 100 needy single-parent families on Kaua‘i improve their living situations and regain their self-sufficiency. The Hui meets almost any need that arises—transportation, meals, emergency financial aid, even organizing childrens’ birthday parties—and that’s just the beginning! What is most impressive about this group is that, despite its track record, it is not a huge organization with a lot of manpower to get things done. A married mother of three, Marilyn founded the Hui after experiencing firsthand the realities some children face. While working as a tutoring supervisor at Kapa‘a Elementary School, she was approached by hungry children who had been unable to get a meal, either at home or at school, and came to her for food. One fifth grade boy told her he hadn’t eaten in two or three days.
Her concern for these children prompted Marilyn to inquire at the Kaua‘i Food Bank, but without a 501(c)3 status—the status of a charitable nonprofit organization—she was unable to gain access to Food Bank resources. Rather than giving up on "the system," Marilyn started Hui o Nā Mākua Ho‘okahi o Kaua‘i to help address the needs of many that had nowhere else to go.
"If we have the funds to meet the needs of the families, we will meet them," says Marilyn. One of the Hui’s most recent initiatives brought Marilyn to Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, where I met her for the first time. She and her husband, Mark, brought a small group of Native Hawaiian youth, ages 13–17, on a tour she organized and funded to help the children become more familiar with the school and application process. Applying to Kamehameha can be overwhelming, as can the travel and the size of the school, Marilyn shared, and she hoped that bringing interested students to the campus would encourage them to apply, and perhaps inspire younger siblings to do the same. Should they decide to apply, she will help their mothers complete the application process for their children.
Although the Hui helps families from all backgrounds, the majority of families it supports are Native Hawaiian. Several of the families Marilyn assists are homeless and live on the beach—again, a situation too many of our Native Hawaiian families are familiar with. A recent series of Honolulu Advertiser articles featured a 16-mile stretch of tents and shelters lining the Wai‘anae Coast on O‘ahu, focusing on families and children living in the camps. Outreach counselors and healthcare providers said many of them are "basically everyday people caught living too close to the financial edge during precarious economic times and an increasingly expensive housing market."
Marilyn knows better than most just how many everyday people struggle to survive. "Our number one need, the overwhelming need of these families, is affordable housing," Marilyn explained. "In the beginning, food was the most important need these families had and we solved that by way of the Kaua‘i Food Bank. But now, if they’re evicted from their homes, because the rent was raised . . . it’s really difficult. It’s an ongoing problem, and it’s getting worse."
One family has been assisted by the Hui for seven years. This particular family, Marilyn shared, lived on the beach for three-and-a-half years and overcome great adversity to reach where they are today. The mother was injured while living on the beach and has been declared disabled for at least four years—currently she is recovering from a recent hip and spinal surgery resulting from her injuries. She pays $1,000 a month for a small studio, and has managed to keep seven of her ten children with her, with the Hui’s support. Marilyn hopes to help at least two of her children get into Kamehameha and keep them off the beach. Although this mother was placed in transitional housing, the two-year period is almost up and Marilyn is unsure whether or not she will have to go back to living on the beach.
"I just don’t want the kids to end up back on the beach," Marilyn worries. "No matter what, I can’t give up on the kids."
And she hasn’t given up on one of them. Marilyn believes in empowering these families and offers a number of resources to help children and their parents gain life skills—sewing and cooking, budget and menu planning, and bulk shopping techniques—to help them break the cycle. The Hui also coordinates employment and vocational training programs for its members, sometimes even finding transitional housing for lucky families.
The Hui relies on grant money to provide its wide spectrum of services—there are no paid staff in its ranks. When the grant money runs out, Marilyn’s husband steps in and his construction company assists to cover emergency expenses and meet the urgent needs families can never predict.
"He has the same heart as me," Marilyn says about her husband of 34 years. "We’re all just volunteers. The kids can’t believe that there’s people out there who would just help out," she continued. "There’s no words to describe how I feel when I help them out. But, I do feel gratification in helping one family at a time. It also makes me feel that I have helped out a little to make a family's life just a little bit better."
Marilyn only wishes she could do more, as the families’ needs are varied but always great. The Hui operates mainly on a referral program, relying on the parents themselves, the Kaua‘i Food Bank, and other agencies such as Kaua‘i Economic Opportunities and local schools to notify her of needy families. While the majority of Hui members live in the Kapa‘a area, some families come from Kōloa, others from ‘Anini Beach. Some she has been helping every month since they found her, others only require one-time assistance to pull through a medical emergency, get the power turned back on in their homes, meet monthly rent, or any number of other challenges. Marilyn estimates she has about fifteen families that need help on a monthly basis.
"It’s been an eye-opener for me," Marilyn laughs. "Because we’re grassroots, other agencies are more equipped then we are, I’ve never done this before! I’m the founder and director, but it’s been overwhelming to see the amount of families in need."
Other agencies may be better-equipped to handle large numbers of people, but perhaps the Hui’s "weakness" is its strength—the fact that Marilyn does not treat her members as "just another number" gives families a sense of self-confidence and hope that they may not find at other agencies.
"I think the families gravitate towards me, because of how I treat them, it’s personal. They are treated like human beings, they feel cared for. I tell them, ‘You’re not a number, you’re a person that has needs, and we’ll help as much as we can.’" This grassroots mentality has made them different and made them succeed. "We worry about the people, not the paycheck, because we aren’t paid!" she laughs.
One of the Hui’s long-term goals is to find a permanent facility from which they can operate, a place to call home where they can offer popular classes more regularly and not be subject to the schedules of facilities they share now. Again, Marilyn thinks of the children her work impacts. They’re excited about their cooking classes, sometimes putting in requests for dishes even Marilyn has to learn how to make! She hopes to be able to offer classes more than once a week, not only because the children greatly enjoy cooking, but because it ensures they will have at least one healthy meal for the day.
"We do the best we can with what we have, more kids want to take part, but it’s a matter of funding. I’m glad we’re doing our little part in our community to help ease some of the pain these families are feeling. That’s basically why I do what I do."
However, she does not go into the job blind. "I’ve been taken by a few moms," Marilyn admits. "We provide the food in between their welfare checks, and moms would tell me they’re going to buy food with the money when the checks come in, then I find out they used it for drugs." These experiences, though rare, have taught her that if she can only help someone once, she’s done her part. "I tell them, if they’re willing to help themselves, I’ll go the whole nine yards for them. But I won’t enable them, I won’t help them continue on a path that is harmful or involves drugs."
The Hui’s greatest need is financial, as they supply any kind of service one could imagine for single-parent families: tax preparation, transportation, travel funds, medical and school supplies, car repairs and purchase, gas, rent, utility, food, bail, and assistance in finding and funding education, housing, and vocational training. They recently held their annual Thanksgiving picnic at Kamalani Park and are anticipating their Christmas celebration, a formal dinner the Hui puts on for members. The Christmas formal is especially exciting for children and important to the Hui, as members want the children to experience good food and a fancy meal at least once a year.
"I tell myself, just help one family at a time. The need can be overwhelming, but I concentrate on what I can do."
The Hui has been fortunate to receive many donations from the community to help furnish homes for moms who have recently moved off of the beach. Marilyn recalled that they've received furniture from condos located from Princeville to Poipū, beds and bedding from the Marriott Courtyard hotel in Waipouli, and monetary gifts ranging from $5 to $5,000 from individuals and foundations. One large blessing came from Larry Bowman of dbaFalcon Partners in California—he donated a 2003 Mazda MPV, complete with a DVD player, while another California resident donated a complete HP computer system.
If you are interested in contacting Hui o Nā Mākua Ho‘okahi o Kaua‘i, Marilyn can be reached at 1784 Awa‘a Pl. Kapa‘a HI 96746, or call her at (808) 822-7028 or (808) 639-1070, or by email at MarilynMohler33@aol.com.