For Tehani Kaalekahi, Molokai has always been – and always will be – home. But realizing the limited higher education and work opportunities on the island, she knew she had to leave.
“It was the hardest but also the best thing for me to do,” she says. “If I stayed on island, I would likely be relying on government assistance as a primary source of income because that’s the way I grew up.”
Kaalekahi went to Oahu and attended Heald College on a scholarship and Hawaii Pacific University. She later moved to California, where she got her master’s degree and worked in the nonprofit and corporate worlds. After 30 years, it was time to return. “Molokai is where I needed to be,” she says.
Tehani Kaalekahi is the executive director of Sust‘āinable Molokai
Last July, she became executive director of Sust‘āinable Molokai, a nonprofit community development organization working to restore aina momona (abundant land) to Molokai. The small organization has big goals but has been making a big impact. “What tugs at my heart is the ability to reconnect with people from every community on island, particularly our kupuna,” she adds.
The organization is working on a youth ambassador program that gives young people learning opportunities and a sense of purpose by uniting traditional practices with responsible and modern sustainabilily solutions.
Kaalekahi (left) works on a limu pickup project.
"Molokai is known to many as the birthplace of hula," she says. "Her people are known as farmers of land and sea. We’re getting back to our roots with kupuna manao (knowledge from respected elders) while still keeping an eye toward the future,” she says.
Kaalekahi hopes to continue working on providing young people with opportunities that she never had growing up.
“I want them to wake up in the morning with a sense of wanting to be here instead of having to be here,” she says. “At Sust‘āinable Molokai, we’re all paddling in one waa (canoe) and setting the pace on this course to reach a sustainable destination for Molokai.”
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