Ten years ago, Alexandra arrived at Hale Kipa’s Hapai Home on Oahu. She was 13 years old, pregnant with her first son, and lacked the consistent support of a mother, just as she was about to become one herself.
“A mom brings you into this world and teaches you how to grow up and be in this world,” she says. “How do you do what you are supposed to do when you don’t have that big influence there?”
Alexandra would soon find a mother figure in Michelle Kinimaka, a Hale Kipa program coordinator who oversaw the Hapai Home. The program assisted more than 50 pregnant young women and new mothers with shelter, health, counseling and education services from 1999-2010.
“It wasn’t always peaches and cream,” Alexandra says, particularly after the Hapai Home closed due to funding constraints. There were days when she went on the run, or when she got angry or intoxicated. There was the passing of her father and a major surgery. There were counseling appointments, evaluations, and school assignments.
Alexandra’s second son was the last baby born under the Hapai Home program. Afterward, she continued to work closely with Michelle in Hale Kipa’s Independent Living Program. She recently graduated from Hawaii Medical College and this year started a career as a medical care giver.
“Michelle was there for it all,” says Alexandra, who often stops by Michelle’s office, a 5-minute walk from her Waipahu home. “She has been a mom to me. As I like to say, we’ve had two kids and a gall bladder removed together.”
This summer, Michelle is returning to her home state of Kansas to care for her family after nearly three decades in Hawaii, where she moved shortly after graduating from Washburn University with a bachelor’s degree in social work. The middle of nine children, she remembers a high-school service class, where she traveled from the suburbs of Kansas City to the inner city to help immigrant communities learn English, work with severely disabled youth, and serve food to those in need.
“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “When I was in college I also had several friends from high school become pregnant, and I knew social work would be something I would like to do.”
Michelle landed her first position as a case manager 27 years ago with Hale Kipa, working out of an office in the back of a Hale Kipa emergency shelter home in Manoa. She has since served in several positions, most recently as the program coordinator of the Independent Living and Imua Kākou programs, where she oversaw 12 case managers working with 200 youth. In all, she has assisted more than 1,000 youth in her career.
“Our youth have every reason not to trust anyone,” she says. “Their history of trauma dictates that. I have always tried to be that person they know they can rely on, no matter what. It’s about being there for them and believing in them when sometimes no one else does. That trust and that relationship is a privilege and one I don’t take for granted.”
Her time at the Hapai Home brought her back to the place where she was meant to be – working with pregnant youth and young mothers, she says.
“It was my dream job,” she says. “Years earlier when I first thought of working with pregnant teens, I had no idea just how my own role as a mother and my passion for children and parenting would play into that and be such a perfect fit.”
Michelle’s three adult children now live on the East and West Coasts as well as Hawaii. She says she is looking forward to traveling and returning frequently, as well as staying in touch with many of the young adults she worked with at Hale Kipa.
“She continues to be a mentor to so many, even for people who are now in their thirties,” says Jaque Kelley-Uyeoka, deputy CEO of Hale Kipa. “She has been committed to Hale Kipa and our youth in the highest loyalty and degree, doing whatever it takes and going where she was needed. The biggest thing is that she was always there for the youth – always accessible, always responsive. Her caring was unconditional.”
Alexandra says that is one of the things she will miss most about Michelle.
“I don’t want to say goodbye, but I support her,” she says. “I am so glad I was able to have her as my case manager and as a mother figure. She left such a legacy, and she has imprinted so many people.”
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