03 Jan 2024

Wahine Warriors

women of waianae
Text by Tracy Chan | Images by John Hook | Source: Hale Issue 11

From humble origins, the nonprofit Women of Waiʻanae prove that, together, ordinary people can have an extraordinary impact.

Karen Young remembers talking story with some friends in her yard in 1989. As a new nurse practitioner at the time, she had been moved by her patients’ life hardships. “I grew up in a poor family too, but at least we had a roof over our heads,” Young recalls. One patient had dreams of becoming a nurse but quit nursing school because she fell short of the $356.00 needed to cover tuition. “I thought, ‘I’m not rich, but I certainly can afford that,’” Young says. “So, I wrote a check and gave it to her.”

Wanting to assist others who faced similar financial hurdles with school, Young and her friends began hosting chili sales and then later expanded their fundraising efforts through yard sales, plant sales, and silent auctions. The friends called themselves the Women of Waiʻanae (WOW). “We came up with the name to underscore what ordinary people—together—can accomplish,” says Young, who now serves as WOW’s president. “We also wanted a name that supports the Waiʻanae Coast community—publicly, proudly, and strongly.” In 2005, the group filed for nonprofit status.

women of waianae

Over 30 years after that initial conversation, and more than 200 scholarships later, it is still this same neighborly kuleana (responsibility) that fuels WOW’s efforts to help women in the community overcome challenges like drug addiction and houselessness, or having to prioritize childcare over college. Once armed and empowered with degrees in higher education, many WOW scholarship recipients return to serve their West Side communities as much-needed teachers, social workers, and healthcare workers.

And many, no matter how busy, return to help the group fundraise where it all started: in Young’s yard. On a recent Sunday morning, E. Mālia Aila, a 2023 scholarship winner, helps to sort clothing, jewelry, and household items for another WOW yard sale. A recent graduate of Leeward Community College, Aila is now studying social work and Hawaiian culture at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “I work and go to school full time, so I have no time for anything, but I still help with this.”

To learn more about the Women of Waiʻanae, visit womenofwaianae.org.

Follow on Facebook @womenofwaianae

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