It’s in the Bag

Mary Navarro and LaVerne Bishop

Mary Navarro and LaVerne Bishop show off some of the fancy bags for sale at the upcoming Hale ‘Opio high tea fundraiser that benefits Kauai youths with a variety of nature and cultural programs. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Similar to the old adage that it “takes a village to raise a child,” it’s places such as Hale ‘Opio that are giving the “villagers” tools to do just that.

In times like these, it hasn’t been easy.

And as with the families it serves, the nonprofit organization that serves some 800 youths island-wide has seen its share of hard times.

“We’ve done a ton of things to cut costs,” former executive director Mary Navarro, now volunteer chairwoman for its largest annual fundraiser, Passion for Purses, says. “We tried to merge, we looked at so many options.”

For starters, the organization that began as a group home in 1974 quietly closed the doors in 2010 to both its boys’ and girls’ homes because, quite simply, there wasn’t any way to fund them, Navarro says.

Purse Committee: Mary Ann Ornellas, Mary Navarro, LaVerne Bishop, Lenie Nishihira, Phyllis Kunimura, Debby Gatioan, Leiko Someda

“The state does not support that level of service for adolescents needing out-of-home care,” she says. “When we closed the second home, the department head in Honolulu said it was actually a ‘good thing,’ as they would’ve ended our contract anyway. So we had been trying to be proactive and look at our options.”

Rather than make a big push for public outcry about the group homes’ closing, Navarro says there were bigger issues to consider, like continuing to serve the needs of the community in any way possible.

“The danger of making a big deal about it was people would think Hale ‘Opio was closing,” she says, and it wasn’t. In fact, it would continue to offer more prevention services, along with therapeutic foster homes, emergency shelter assistance, group therapy, victim impact classes and Kaua’i Teen Court, to name a few.

A close-up of one of this year's treasures, a messenger bag from Israel containing products from a Dead Sea spa: salt scrubs, lotions, and soaps. Amanda C. Gregg photos

But continuing to serve the needs of youths in this economy has required getting a little creative. Thanks to consolidating programs and reducing administrative costs, the latter of which Navarro helped accomplish selflessly when she stepped down as its leader in 2010 for work at another nonprofit, Hale ‘Opio has been able to continue to serve local families.

Navarro’s stepping down allowed the nonprofit to eliminate the position of Program Director LaVerne Bishop, who has since taken the reins as executive director. Bishop has been with Hale ‘Opio since 1975, and was its program director for 35 years.

“We had to reduce the administrative cost for the agency because we needed to dramatically decrease costs,” Navarro says. “I didn’t see any other good way out of this – and LaVerne has so much experience.”

Always remembering what it’s all about – na opio the youth – neither Bishop and Navarro have missed a beat in terms of helping the nonprofit transition effectively into other areas. “LaVerne has been able to write grants and broaden the number of community grants that sup- port the community,” Navarro says. “There are after-school and in-school programs, truancy and pregnancy prevention – a lot of things they didn’t do before, and that’s what they needed to do … They’re impacting a lot of families.”

Hale ‘Opio also offers art and culturally-relevant experiences through its Learning Resource Center, and programs such as Ke Kahua O Ka Malamalama, which aims to help youth appreciate native cultural values and learn life lessons through experiences in nature. Experiences in the program include everything from creating canoe paddles from scratch and learning traditional food gathering and preparation techniques, to connecting with nature and learning about offering ho`okupu. Run by Kelvin and Kathleen Ho, the couple says it’s their hope to connect youths with “the wisdom and deep resources of kupuna and practitioners in the community.”

For Navarro, volunteer chairing for the upcoming Passion for Purses high-tea fundraiser on May 6 at Kaua’i Beach Resort has been a labor of love.

Now in its third year, the event, originally coordinated by Navarro and Pam Christoffel based on the Komen for the Cure model, has a goal of raising $10,000 for Hale ‘Opio.

Paddles Hale ‘Opio youths made from scratch to personalize their metaphoric ‘voyage

“I would love for us to earn $10,000 this year – I think that would be fabulous,” Navarro says of the fundraiser, which she describes as a fun-filled high tea where guests can munch on ono food, bid on bags and wala’au with each other.

“From the first time we did it, the minute people walk in the door the air was just electric,” she says. “People are excited and they have a fun time, because it’s not the same old, same old. And what woman doesn’t enjoy looking at purses?”

This year’s menu will feature curried chicken, salmon, chocolate truffles, French pastries and pink-passion coolers – light pink, wine-based beverages with hints of lilikoi and guava.

Of course the event is about more than the food and purses, as guests will be supporting an entity committed to youth-directed, culturally sensitive curricula that, as Bishop puts it, provides a way to “give youths the additional support and skills needed to succeed in life.”

Students interview Aquatic Biologist Don Heacock about a group of honu that have gathered on the beach

It’s a lofty goal, especially in this economy when some parents are doing all they can just to put food on the table, rush off to that second job and keep bills paid, but supporting youths means meeting emotional needs too, Bishop says.

Bishop, who received her master’s degree in psychology from Stanford, says parental involvement with school is just one of several “protective factors” that help ensure youths grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

“Teachers nowadays are having to get very involved, and will call the home at night and say, ‘We’ve been sending this homework home, we’re concerned that your child is not participating,’ and the family will say, Teaching is your job, it is your job to educate my child.’ So we know families are overwhelmed. But teenagers need their parents’ attention in a way that is useful to them, in a way that makes them feel like someone is listening to them.”

A Hale ‘Opio youth blowing conch at Koke’e on a ‘Mauka to Makai’ huaka‘i that allows students to connect with nature and learn about offering ho‘okupu

Bishop says the adolescent brain in males is formed into an adult brain by the age of 25, and for females it is the age of 22. “So there is a long nurturing requirement for the human being. We shouldn’t lose sight of that,” she says.

Though Bishop has been able to write grants and broaden the number of community grants that support the community, grants don’t include discretionary funds. That’s where this upcoming fundraiser plays a role.

“Many times the programs you get money that is earmarked only for that program-employee time, materials,” Navarro says. “There’s no flexibility for other things that might support the program and staff.”

Those who attend the event also will be helping Hale ‘Opio implement its larger goal, which is dedicated to improving quality of life, enhancing a sense of belonging, increasing self-awareness and strengthening ‘ohana, Bishop says.

Imu practitioner Gordon Doo leads the students for a two-day hands-on project

“We’re all alike, and that’s been my fundamental operating philosophy,” Bishop says. “We all want-love, we all give love. There are some very basic human qualities we share, and to get to the point where you can share that with someone through the different life experiences one has and barriers that society might throw at you, is invaluable.”


Passion for Purses auction and high tea fundraiser benefiting Kaua’i youth will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 6 at Kauai Beach Resort.

Tickets cost $40.

To order online, go to: To reserve via phone, call Debby at 245-2873 X221.

For more information, e-mail

Ana Leonardo-Mertens, a professional parent, with biological child Esme