A Place For All
Kauai is a cultural melting pot. People from all over the world have made their way to the island, and as one of them, Lesther Calipjo wants to celebrate that. He’s president of Kauai Philippine Cultural Center, a place where all of Hawaii’s ethnicities — including Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese —will gather and be honored.
“We’re doing this for the community,” says Calipjo, as he stands next to the giant water pipes ready to be placed underground at the site of the planned center in Puhi.
As of last week, KPCC construction is now underway. Maybe you’ve noticed the black fences that recently popped up by the YMCA of Kauai in Lihue. This is a major milestone for all involved, especially Calipjo, who, since 2010, has put his heart and soul into the project.
“The reason I’m doing this for the community now is I’ve been blessed,” he says.
“The island has been good to me, so this is what I’m doing.”
Phase one of the project is slated to be complete by the end of the year and will include a mulitpurpose building for business offices, etc.
Phase two, which is still in the fundraising stage, will include a main hall designed for events, and where cultural artifacts will be housed. Eventually, the 11-and-a-half acres adjacent to the buildings will be converted into a botanical garden.
“It’s a lot of brainstorming right now; what we can do and what we will do,” says Calipjo.
While president of Kauai Filipino Chamber of Commerce in 2010, Calipjo made it his goal to see this project come to fruition. Art Umezu, a KFCC member since 2007, recalls a moving speech by Calipjo about the center that year.
“His voice quivered throughout his short and passionate speech, but I was convinced and believed that, with his experience as a businessman and community leader, he’ll get KPCC built someday soon,” he says.
In fact, Calipjo stepped down as KFCC president in 2011 to make KPCC a priority. He applied for licenses in 2011 and received $30,000 from the state for a feasibility study. By 2012, the state awarded him a $1.5 million grant, and after a few more years of fundraising, he and the project’s board members were able to kick off phase one.
“Every fundraiser we have draws a lot of crowds. The support that people give us is really tremendous and overwhelming for us,” says Calipjo.
One such supporter is Umezu, who grew up as a teen in a sugar plantation town on Oahu that predominately consisted of people of Filipino and Japanese heritage. In an effort to help raise money for the center, he created a CD, A Place for All, with eight songs by artists including Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., that tell stories of those who grew up during the plantation era. Proceeds from sales of the CD will go toward KPCC.
“Having a place where people can congregate in their comfort zone will allow people to become more community-minded and family-oriented,” says Umezu.
Even with its many supporters, work is hardly over. Much more is needed, but Calipjo is undeterred. He credits his ambition to his move from the Philippines in 1985.
“When I came here, I never had anything,” he admits.
But ever since moving to Kauai with wife Mila he’s been a hustler and has owned janitorial and landscaping, plumbing and trucking businesses. He even scooped up some major Kauai real estate in the late 1990s and still owns several buildings and warehouses. Now he owns and operates the successful Kauai Foreign Cars in Puhi.
The incredibly humble and reticent man has come a long way and makes it a point to give back as much as possible, including serving on the Kauai Community College board. He tries to instill the same values in his children — Kryztle, Gwyn, Kimberly and Grant. “I even tell my kids, now that they’ve graduated, it’s time for them to give back,” he says. “Whenever you have spare time, give back to the community.”
He’s proud to volunteer so many hours bringing KPCC to the island, as he is looking forward to having a place where younger generations can learn about their ancestors. “If we do not do this, our culture will diminish,” he says.
Visit kauaiphilippineculturalcenter.org for more information.