Redefining Rehabilitation

Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center committee members Dr. Gerald McKenna, Lani Nagao, Theresa Koki, Maile Murray and Bill Arakaki stand at the facility’s construction site, which broke ground in January. MATT FEESER PHOTO

When it opens later this year, the Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center will change the way Kaua‘i youth recover from substance abuse.

Kaua‘i’s soon-to-be Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center is decades in the making.

“You hear about things starting and people don’t get to witness the fruits of their labor. But this is happening in our lifetime,” says Lani Nagao, one of the project’s committee members.

She’s excited because it’s something that’s been in motion since the early 1990s, after Hurricane ‘Iniki destroyed the previous adolescent program, which was housed in two trailers in Kapa‘a. Many attempts to restart something have occurred since then, including efforts by the late Mayor Bryan Baptiste. But it was the culmination of efforts by Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr., community volunteers, and, in particular, Theresa Koki, coordinator for a substance abuse prevention program called Life’s Choices Kaua‘i, that really got the program on its current progressive track. Koki credits her timeless commitment to a personal experience — she had a child grappling with substance abuse who had to travel to O‘ahu to undergo treatment.

“That 20-minute plane ride was the longest plane ride of my life,” she vividly recalls.

Koki remembers feeling uncomfortable about dropping her child off with strangers and not being able to stay. Now, when parents come to her at work, she understands their frustration and despair when she tells them they must send their keiki to O‘ahu for help.

“We have to do this for our families,” says Koki. “It’s important for the families to heal together on Kaua‘i.”

An artist rendering of what Kaua‘i’s Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center is projected to look like upon completion. PHOTO COURTESY COUNTY OF KAUA‘I

A groundbreaking and blessing ceremony at the future site of the Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center on Ma‘alo Road in Kapaia happened in January, and the project is slated for completion before the end of the year. The facility is located on a 5.8-acre parcel of land donated by Grove Farm and will contain an integrated and full-spectrum treatment and healing center for adolescents ages 12-18 who are abusing substances. An eight-bedroom residential structure will be included in the overall design, as well as an open space for sports and outdoor cultural activities like the cultivation of taro. One of the primary aspects of the facility will be a pavilion where family wellness will be highlighted.

“We know that if the parents don’t get involved, we’re not going to be able to adequately treat the adolescent,” says Dr. Gerald McK-enna, who is board certified in addiction medicine and psychiatry.

McKenna has had an outpatient substance abuse treatment program on island since 1989 called McKenna Recovery Center. His practice mostly focuses on adults, but he does have experience working with adolescents and understands the importance of having their ‘ohana nearby as part of the healing process. Besides individual therapy sessions, adolescents will be able to have sessions with their parents, as well as other patients and their families, at the new center.

“You can’t treat them in isolation,” he says.

McKenna is part of the approximate 10-member committee for the facility — many are prominent figures in the community, including Kaua‘i Police Department Chief Darryl Perry and County of Kaua‘i prosecuting attorney Justin Kollar — that formed about three years ago. One of the first things they did was facilitate meetings and gather feedback from residents regarding topics like finding a proper location, which was their main obstacle to overcome.

“People are scared,” says McKenna.

They uncovered a significant amount of opposition, as some community members did not want a facility to be constructed in their neighborhoods.

State, county and other stakeholders take part in the Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center groundbreaking on Ma‘alo Road Jan. 4. PHOTO COURTESY COUNTY OF KAUA‘I

“It’s hard to get people to realize that, around the corner, there are people dealing drugs,” says McKenna. “Your next-door neighbor could be strung out on opiates and you’d have no idea.”

Luckily, the committee was able to secure a location that, while isolated, is only minutes away from the convenience of places like the hospital in Līhu‘e. Now that the spot has been secured and construction is already underway, identifying a medical director and third party to operate the facility are currently being ironed out. Once those things are in place, committee members have high hopes that the center will be successful.

“Ours is going to have the greatest success rate of any in the United States,” says McKenna.

Maile Murray, who works with Koki and has served as a counselor for substance abusers, is especially excited to reach kids before their addiction escalates and they become entrenched in the problem.

“We want to get to them before it takes over their lives and they become dysfunctional adults,” she says.

None of this would have been a possibility without the team effort of people like Bill Arakaki, state Department of Education’s Kaua‘i Complex area superintendent, who says he’s proud to be a part of the committee, especially since the center’s adolescents will need to continue their education during their healing process.

“Kaua‘i is a unique place,” says Arakaki. “The entities — government, private business — everyone works together here. It’s rewarding to see all of the people coming together to support our families and children.”

Contact Koki at 241-4925 or for more information.