waimea's healing garden

Kristen Nemoto Jay
February 22, 2024

The story of Malaai - a 1-acre model garden at Waimea Middle School - began in 2005 when a local physician started noticing heightened diet- and nutrition-related illnesses among her patients. Community members then rallied together to start the organic outdoor living classroom, with the overall goal of its residents to become further connected to the land and the food that they ate. Fast forward to today, 19 years later, Malaai continues to teach and nurture its students, teachers and community members through garden lessons, community volunteer days, after school programs, and more. Vicky DeMercer, an HMSA employee and Malaai volunteer, shares how Malaai helped her personally and how others can help to become stewards of the land.

Connecting with the aina
In the late summer of 2020, Vicky DeMercer took a break from working the 1-acre land known as Malaai – a culinary garden at Waimea Middle School – and realized “holy cow, this is a fully functional garden.” She had just started volunteering at Malaai, enjoying her time there in the dirt, among the chickens, compost, and sprinkling of other volunteers, but never fully stopped to seep in the space until that moment.

A beautiful rainbow shines bright on Malaai, an organic outdoor living classroom at Waimea Middle School.

It was also during her first few months there when she spotted a Hawaiian Sandalwood tree, an iliahi, for the first time and then asked her neighbor, Gabriel Grosshuesch, who had introduced her to the community garden: “Why does that eucalyptus tree look so weird?”

“He told me that it was an iliahi, and it was an eye opener,” says DeMercer. “Malaai gives us the tools to better understand how to listen to the native plants, to be among them as well, and it further helped me connect to who I am.”

Months before DeMercer found herself at Malaai, she was at a crossroads in her life. She went through what she now calls a “sorta midlife crisis.” She had experience volunteering with aina-based nonprofits such as Hands in Helping Out and Hooulu Aina, but wanted to “re-indigenize” herself and “amp up” what it meant for her to be a “kanaka in the 21st century.”

The COVID-19 pandemic especially affected, like many people, how she viewed her place in, and contributions to, the community. When non-essential travel opened up again in 2020, DeMercer was on the first flight back to Kohala to visit her mother who lived alone. It was during that time when she got reacquainted with Grosshuesch who told her that Malaai was in desperate need of volunteers to help keep the garden going.

“I was so grateful to him, to Malaai, for helping me through that time in my life when there were a lot of things that we weren’t sure of because of COVID,” says DeMercer, an associate business partner with HMSA, who resides in Kaneohe with her husband but visits Kohala often to see her mother and volunteer at Malaai.   

Providing a welcoming space
Zoe Kosmas, Malaai’s culinary garden director, will forever remember the timestamp B.C. (Before COVID) and A.C. (After COVID) as it was a “heartbreaking” year for her, the nonprofit organization, and the community. When she remembers that spring of 2020, she recalls worrying about what her kids would be going through.

Everything around them began to shut down, yet the garden still had to maintain. Malaai worked with Waimea Middle School to deliver activities and food to each student, showing care and maintaining connections. When restrictions started to lift in the late summer, Malaai welcomed back the students, teachers, and community members with distant but opened arms.

Students take a break from their garden duties to flash a masked smile and shaka. 

“Being able to provide a safe and welcoming space for everyone to reintegrate with each other was special for them to return to,” says Kosmas.

Kosmas was especially warmed to see how Malaai’s afterschool program, led by long-time garden educator Holly Sargeant-Green, further helped students mingle after months of being socially distant from each other. The artsy student was able to mesh with the sporty student and vice versa. While “outside of the four walls of a classroom,” the garden became their common ground to get things accomplished together. 

“Holly continued to help encourage the kids to be their best selves, to show up and be nice to their peers even if it’s someone that they don’t get along with in ‘normal time,’” says Kosmas. “Being in the garden gave them different opportunities to interact – so the result has been great overall, especially for them returning post-COVID.”

Culinary Garden Director Zoe Kosmas (yellow shirt) with her team of volunteers at Malaai.

Rooted in the community
Malaai has been healing the community since its start in February 2005. Years prior, when Michelle Suber, N.D., a physician serving the Waimea community, started noticing heightened diet- and nutrition-related illnesses among her patients, she collaborated with a group of community stakeholders to develop a school garden program, targeting middle school students as the ideal age to introduce garden classes and to coincide with learning life lessons.

Dr. Suber then invited Amanda Rieux, a garden educator from the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkley, California, to help start the garden and its programs at Waimea Middle School. Grants and donors helped the program begin and students and teachers started learning in the outdoor classroom.

Today, Malaai also leads the Hawaii Island School Garden Network (HISGN), which includes 67 school gardens on Hawaii Island, and helps to revitalize efforts in providing “professional development, advocacy, mentorship, and technical assistance to school gardens across the state.”

Waimea Middle School students proudly pose with some fresh produce grown from Malaai soil.  

Healing people with food
Executive Director Jeannette Soon-Ludes hopes Malaai can continue to support families and students in need, despite the high economic disparities in Waimea, which has forced many families to not be able to focus on health and nutrition as much as having to worry about putting food on the table.

“Research shows that vulnerable youth tend to have more adverse childhood experiences but that role of beneficial childhood experiences can be impactful and that’s what we see Malaai doing,” says Soon-Ludes. “Malaai provides a space and place and food connection as a mode of healing. The kids then become conduits to parents with some of this knowledge. Kids take home produce and share what they’ve learned. That becomes really impactful, the knowledge they share with others and the community.”

Pitching in
“Community workdays” are held bi-monthly on the second Saturday of the month, welcoming all those who’d like to donate their time and energy into Malaai’s mission, which is to “cultivate connections between people, land, culture, and food in school gardens.” The healing that occurs is twofold: Mother Earth and the community it serves.

Malaai volunteers gather to do an oli prior to eating lunch.

DeMercer plans to go back and help on Malaai’s next community workday. It’s become her haven, a place where she can go to help heal the earth and feel assured that it will help heal her.

“It’s almost like a moving meditation when I work there,” says DeMercer. “I’m not worried about the thoughts that are coming into my head. I can let them come and go and I’m still going to be moving the compost pile or trying to get the chicken feed to the right place. Those things have to get done so my thoughts are present. Always.”

DeMercer, Kosmas, and Soon-Ludes hope that the movement of garden communities providing Hawaii with sustainable agriculture will extend and be pushed into legislation. To help turn this into a reality, Malaai encourages everyone to volunteer at their local garden community. The more attention that’s spent on communities striving to help feed local residents, the more demand there will be for Hawaii to have 100% sustainable agriculture.

A bountiful harvest grown and picked from Malaai's garden. 

Either way, DeMercer says, taking care of the land that we live on is our kuleana. So that we do better not just for the next generation but for the many generations in the future that will need us to make the change for the better now.

“This land is our grandmother and she loves us,” DeMercer continues with tears in her eyes. “I just want to be able to honor that every day that I walk this earth. And the way I can honor that is by taking the time to help out.”

For more information on Malaai and how you can help volunteer at their next community workday, go to malaai.org. On Saturday, Feb. 24, Malaai will be celebrating their 19th birthday! Learn more and respond to attend by going to bit.ly/malaai-19th-birthday. There will be food, refreshments and a gathering of community members who all helped to make Malaai the special place that it is today.

Photos courtesy Malaai. 

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