Building A Regenerative Future

(From left) Tiare Kaolelopono, Kamaka Ka‘aloa, U‘ilani Fonoti, Allan Silva and Carolyn Murren of Kāpili Like

U‘ilani Fonoti and her team at Kāpili Like are constantly working to help the underserved achieve sustainable and fulfilled lives.

A mother of four wanting to set an example for her kids as she gets back on her feet.

A man, laid off after 21 years and looking for a career change. A young man hoping to start his life off on the right footing.

These are just three examples of the people who’ve been helped by Kāpili Like — a nonprofit organization that is the brainchild of executive director U‘ilani Fonoti.

Kāpili Like’s trade academy participants labor together at a worksite in Nānākuli. The organization takes requests for community projects and applies those service hours toward apprenticeships that help fulfill certification requirements. In addition to carpentry, there are ag, auto repair and transportation programs.

Years ago, while working in Windward O‘ahu, Fonoti recognized a need for support services in education, job training and healthcare in Waimānalo.

“I noticed that our homesteaders, they were not serviced. It was a cycle of not promoting education and no support. We had basically a poverty rate that was just extended through generations,” she recalls. “We also had lots who could not even read.”

This was the beginning of Kāpili Like — helping those who Fonoti saw were underserved within the community.

“I would work in the community, just doing volunteer work because I worked in Kailua at the time and I would tutor families on weekends and support homesteaders to do just the basic stuff that you would assume would be done at school, through the education system,” she says. “They needed more. They needed more attention and then it led to understanding that it was a generational thing. It wasn’t just the keiki, it was mākua and it was kūpuna that needed the services, since … academics (reading, school and education) was not something promoted within the family and maybe even in the homestead, it extended down to generations.

“The need and importance and urgency of education wasn’t something that they were promoting within their own ‘ohana.”

So she rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

“We were there and we did services there on the homestead, back in Waimānalo,” recalls Fonoti. “We were working out of just basically a farmland with tables and chairs.”

Fonoti and other volunteers helped people receive assistance beyond educational pursuits. They even helped with job placement.

“It started out as a basic grassroots, community effort,” she says.

Soon, the work they were doing was noticed by entities that would become strong community partners.

“Luckily, word spread and Kamehameha Schools and the Castle Foundation saw what we were doing there and they supported us and decided to fund us to help us build our foundation and … help us be a functioning entity rather than just pull up a chair and a tent,” Fonoti explains.

That was in 2017. Today, Kāpili Like services people islandwide and its home base is now located in Kunia.

“It allows us office space, classroom space and an ag lot,” says Fonoti.

She credits the move to the support of community partners that helped the group apply for a Youth Build grant, which was received in July.

“We went from training youth and working on academics to expanding and evolving into a trades academy,” she says.

“We realize that most of our youth did not want to go to higher education or were not college-bound. So, where does that leave them? There was no point in pushing them to graduate with no next step.”

The group sought input from the community to learn what skills and industries were in-demand. Then, Kāpili Like developed programs to provide training for those fields.

“We picked things that provided a livable wage, things they can maintain their families on (and) build careers on,” explains Fonoti.

Kāpili Like’s academy provides training in construction, sustainable agriculture, transportation (CDL, driver’s education and forklift certification) and auto repair.

The organization sees everyone’s potential, and while they are admitted in cohorts, Fonoti stresses that everyone’s path is individualized. There is no set deadline and help is always there to support participants, she notes.

Kāpili Like’s entire program — whether it’s job training or obtaining a GED — is culturally based and built upon four pillars: Pilina, Kuleana, Kūpono and Mālama.

“Pilina is the relationship that you have with yourself and others and community. Kuleana, which is the responsibility you have for yourself, your family and community, and thinking of all what all those three encompass … and making decisions and doing everything with intention,” she explains. “Kupono is to do things in a righteous way, and Mālama is the act of taking care or protecting.

“So, how do you do all those things? You start within, which extends to your family, which extends to community and you’re a member of all those three things.”

Fonoti says that everyone who comes to the program is part of that underserved population she noted when she first founded Kāpili Like. Some are referred through schools or community organizations. Others are referred through the court system. Still others apply to the program on their own. All are welcome and she points out that while others may consider them at-risk, the Kāpili Like team believes everyone deserves a second chance.

“We say at-promise, instead of at-risk,” she asserts.

“Our participants for the most part are the underserved, the at-promise population. They do include those that needed second chances from addiction or incarceration, those type of things. And now, with COVID, there’s ‘ohana that need a second chance,” she says. “They need job placement because they lost their jobs, etc. That’s even how CDL came in, too. We were like ‘OK,’ because people took the time now, to kind of reevaluate themselves and their goals and so forth. I mean even us as an organization, (we thought) ‘what do we want to do and how do we service the community more?’ So it wasn’t just those that had those issues. It’s now those that face COVID restrictions or COVID layoffs and terminations. Now, they’re stuck, too. So, we all needed to come together as community.”

In addition to the training people may have signed up for, the organization provides life skills guidance, counseling, and sometimes even food.

“We make sure you have food … we realize that sustenance is a big thing and some of our participants weren’t eating,” Fonoti explains.

Once in the program, the team at Kāpili Like is there with its participants for the long-haul. This includes any setbacks they may have.

“We ask that our participants be 100% honest with us, and transparent. Even if it’s negative. Say, they used over the weekend or they’re involved in something that they shouldn’t have been, we ask them to be completely honest so we can support them to a resolution so we can move on and help remedy the situation and help them keep moving forward,” Fonoti stresses.

“There are going to be issues, concerns and slip-ups. There’s always room for improvement, growth and redemption. And that’s what we teach them,” she says. “We want them to be sustainable. We want them to move forward.”

Kāpili Like’s programs are open to youth and adult participants.

When she looks back on what her initial vision has grown into, she says she is overwhelmed, but she’s quick to credit her team and community partners (Hawaiian Electric, Kamehameha Schools, A‘ali‘i, Goodwill Hawai‘i and the Castle Foundation) that were and continue to be instrumental in keeping Kāpili Like going.

And it’s been very successful. Since the nonprofit’s inception, 600 participants have gone through the programs. All have retained their employment and more than 80% have continued their education while being employed. The programs have contributed more than 100,000 community service hours for the participants.

It’s those service hours that help with the hands-on training the academy provides.

“For us, (the four pillars are) a daily implementation. So for instance, everything that we do for our trades academy is related to community. So, for our carpentry for example, we build homes to gain apprenticeship hours,” she says.

People may apply for a project by visiting

The fruit of all that work continues to go out into the community and lead fulfilling lives.

The mom of four was placed in a job at Home Depot after completing her forklift certification. Her daughter did the same and was placed at Costco. Both have since been promoted and Mom is looking to get her CDL certification through Kāpili Like.

The man who was laid off from his job after 21 years completed his CDL certification and now has a new career. He was the oldest member of Kāpili Like’s first cohort and, as an example of how the program caters to each individual, he was able to help and share his life experiences with the younger members and provide his own guidance.

The 16-year-old who came to Kāpili Like through the drug courts was able to obtain his GED and is now in the military and living in Nevada. He’s married and has a baby on the way.

“These are the outcomes that we can talk story about,” Fonoti says, her voice beaming with pride in the individuals’ accomplishments.

“From all ages — a mother with an addiction background to Uncle Daniel, who needed a second career because of COVID, and Cody who was in our group and who is now living in Nevada.”

Despite those successes, Fonoti says that there’s always more that they can do to help. “We’re thankful to be supported through community partnerships and various grants.

We hope that we’re around for a while.”