Healing Our Island: A Community Policing Success Story from Hawaii

By 2004, the Island of Hawaii was facing a drug abuse epidemic of monumental proportions. “Ice,” or methamphetamine, was literally destroying families and tearing communities apart.

Community leaders, knowing they needed to instill fundamental, grassroots-level solutions to the worsening crisis, devised the Healing Our Islands Community Grant Fund Program (HOIC) to attack the problem by focusing not so much on the drug itself, but on building stronger communities.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi

After six years, the County of Hawaii’s HOIC grant program has spun its resources into lasting benefits throughout Hawaii’s largest island county, which is roughly the size of Connecticut with 4,028 square miles, and about 170,000 residents.

In its six-year run, the HOIC Grant Fund program reached thousands of residents throughout Hawaii Island, and provided a positive and successful response to the methamphetamine epidemic.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi helped jumpstart the community fund grant program—before he was elected Mayor—when he served as an executive assistant in the previous county administration. “When we initially started, Billy Kenoi had gone to the Legislature and came back with $150,000 to use for community planning,” said Louise Winn, the Resource Center Specialist in the county’s Research and Development department at the time.

Since then, HOIC has provided $897,904 to 516 grassroots groups, serving thousands of residents with countless hours of volunteer and in-kind services donated, adding tremendous value to the grants.

The basic idea was that communities know best how to solve their own issues, and that only a small investment by government could be leveraged with grassroots leaders to achieve exceptional results in those communities.

Applications for grants were simplified so no one would be intimidated by the process, and were only available for up to $2,000. “We really wanted very grassroots people to be able to feel that they could do this,” said Winn.

Many community groups only asked for small amounts. Those with larger needs were encouraged to raise funds. “They started to be able to do that,” said Winn. “They were scared at first but they all learned how to get and accept donations, which is really a huge deal.”

The grants only had to be anti-drug in some way and focused on children, families, neighborhoods and communities, said Mayor Kenoi. “And if you did that, everything else was wide open.”

“We have kids who have nothing to do,” said Winn. “These small grants created activities and we were blown away by how much talent these kids have. I look at our island and I’m super proud of what we’ve done. And a big part of that has been these Healing Our Island grants.”

All kinds of programs and events began to take place: Skate park events, talent shows, Easter Egg hunts, Toys for Tots, school supply drives, concerts, movie nights.

Kids running
gas masks
kids with hard hats
Healing Our Island: A Community Policing Success Story from Hawaii

Richey Riggs, co-founder of Roots Advocates for Youth, organized movie nights as a way to promote a skateboard park project for kids. More important, he got their parents involved. “That’s one of the main factors in a child’s life, what their parents are up to, and we’ve encouraged a lot of parents to get involved with us in these fundraisers to develop a skatepark for their kids,” said Riggs. “As a recipient of the Healing Our Island grant, we’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to reach kids and their parents and get them involved in our project.”

One of the hardest hit areas of the island is the Puna District. Liz Salfen, the HOIC Liaison in Puna, said the biggest outcome was that people learned to work together. “It was people growing, networking, becoming a bigger planning committee because no one can do it by themselves, and I think Healing Our Island helped people build their network, their community, and then once that lesson was learned by one group, they would help the next group.”

The principles of community policing and community prosecution were employed to partner with the community to solve problems, said Mitch Roth, a community-oriented deputy prosecuting attorney in Hawaii County.

“Healing Our Island Community grants really gave power back to the community,” Roth said. “The problems that we’re having with drugs in our community are really not the police’s problem, it’s not the prosecutor’s problem, it’s not the government’s problem, it’s the community’s problem, and what grants have done is given our community ownership over those problems. It’s the community working together with the government to take care of the problems that affect all of us.”

County grant writer Beth Dykstra said one measure of the success of HOIC has been that it’s become iconic on the island. “People know what it means,” she said. “Drug-free communities. It’s OK to have parties and get-togethers and meetings without alcohol or drugs.”

A 17-minute video that highlights the program’s many success stories was produced by local filmmaker Keoni Alvarez and broadcast island-wide on Mayor Kenoi’s weekly program on local public access television.

“Healing Our Island Community has given people pride,” said Salfen. “They’re proud to live on the Big Island, and they’re proud to say, ‘We can overcome this.’ And they know that they can have fun at an event without drugs and alcohol.”

HOIC enhanced police officers’ ability to connect with both the leaders and the kids in many communities and work more closely with them, said Hawaii County Police Captain James Sandborn. “I think that, if anything, was a big plus for us.”

Mayor Kenoi said the “true value” of Healing Our Island has been in developing relationships among “people who talk now, people who work together who otherwise might not have been talking, who otherwise might not be working together, because that’s the only way we’re going to keep our communities safe.

“People may be disagreeing on a political campaign, might disagree on a land-use issue, or an economic issue. But on this issue, everybody is pro-children, everybody is pro-family.

“If we do this right, and just focus on creating healthy children and protecting our kids, we can strengthen our families, and once we do that we can have healthy, safe neighborhoods and communities. And once we do that, we’re going to have a healthy and safe Hawaii Island.”


-Hunter Bishop
Executive Assistant in the Office of Mayor
 County of Hawaii

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