I have seen miracles, but not in church. At Pu‘uhonua O Waiʻanae, the homeless encampment in Waiʻanae, is where I feel God’s presence the most. There’s so much wisdom in the people there.
I started visiting Pu‘uhonua O Waiʻanae through volunteering at a church’s food donation program. A lot of good people do “outreach” there. But each time I visited, I’d think, “How can I really understand what they’re going through if I don’t live in their shoes?” So, God said to me, “Go.” It was supposed to be one month, but my family and I ended up staying for two.
Later, I did not expect or want to be featured on the news about living in the encampment with my 12 kids, but I’m glad the community at Pu‘uhonua O Waiʻanae encouraged me to do it. That news coverage became a part of this important, complex ongoing conversation about the growing population of people here who have no home.
That news coverage was also the beginning of Mākaha Community Center’s donation program. People started calling us wanting to donate items. What started out from the bed of a pickup truck and a 10-feet-by- 10-feet tent is now several times that size. We serve close to 7,000 families on this island, and everything is free. If there’s a family with a postpartum mom and newborn who are sleeping on flat sheets on the floor of their cramped apartment, we help by giving them furniture and keeping in touch with them. We try to find out what other needs they may have: Are the kids thriving? What would it take for that family to thrive?
We compensate our volunteers with the donated goods they need to live safely and with dignity. We know what it’s like to not have $6.99 for a onesie at Savers. You don’t have to be homeless to be in need.
Ultimately, my focus is on the children. At our center, we have a tutoring program specifically for youth from transitional housing, low-income housing, and encampments. Growing up, I was the second of 11 kids, and we ran wild. I was always on a bike or up a tree, and I learned to defend myself, fast. The kids I work with now remind me of that. They’re resourceful, creative. They are fun to be around. They are the reason why I went back to school to get my degree in mathematics. Math had been my least favorite subject and a big part of my leaving high school in my junior year. I had some hard work to do if I was to help these kids succeed.
My goal is to put roadblocks in the way of the vicious cycle of generational poverty. I’d like to teach these children and young adults what a healthy relationship looks like. I want them to love and value themselves. It all starts with relationships.
Pastor Abigail Eli is the Executive Director and President of the Mākaha Community Center and a Senior Pastor and Board President of Waiʻanae Assembly of God. She lives in the same house she bought at age 19, just six doors down from her childhood home in Waiʻanae. Just as she envisioned in her own adolescence, it is filled with children.
To learn more about the Mākaha Community Center (MCC), visit makahacommunitycenter.org.