The March 12th open house was a reason to celebrate. After a half-century of helping to rescue Hawaii’s at-risk youth from troubled homes, the “House of Friendliness” has a home of its own for the first time.
Hale Kipa needs its new $12 million facility on Old Fort Weaver Road in West Oahu. The social problems that led to the nonprofit’s founding in 1970 are still with us today, and in many cases are magnified. Thousands of our keiki are running away from physical, emotional and sexual abuse, ending up on the streets and in many cases in the youth correctional system.
If they’re lucky, they end up at Hale Kipa.
Over its first 50 years, Hale Kipa has served more than 60,000 youth and young adults and this year will have approximately 2,000 clients under its care. Punky Pletan-Cross thinks the 60,000 number is conservative; he has seen more than 40,000 clients since he joined the nonprofit as its CEO in 1998.
Pletan-Cross reluctantly uses the term “client” to describe those whom Hale Kipa serves but prefers to call them “bundles of potential.”
Hale Kipa began with a mission to rescue runaway girls and still has more female clients (56%) than male (44%). Nearly half of its clients come from Native Hawaiian families.
Hale Kipa’s approximately 170 employees operate 19 programs throughout Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. (See list.) Nearly half of their young clients come from West Oahu – the reason the new facility was built there.
All of its emergency shelters accept self-referrals as well as from Child Protective Services, Family Court, and youth agencies. Pletan-Cross says a common misperception is that Hale Kipa is part of the youth correctional system. It definitely is not incarceration, he says, but rather a pathway to a better life.
Almost $6.8 million of the nonprofit’s $9.3 million budget in Fiscal Year 2019 came from government grants, with another $1.5 million as part of the capital campaign. More than $4 million went to prevention and intervention, with another $1 million spent on shelter. Hale Kipa owns two townhouses in addition to its new center, and leases other facilities.
The new facility accommodates approximately 75 employees and features emergency shelter for up to 16 youth – eight boys and eight girls in separate buildings. Each unit has four bedrooms with two beds in each, plus a spacious common area. The idea, Pletan-Cross says, is to make the residents feel as if they’re in a friendly home environment.
Pletan-Cross told attendees at the open house that the young residents rise early to catch the bus to school, waving at the security cameras as they depart. That was before COVID-19 extended spring break and led to sheltering in place.
While emergency shelter is an important part of Hale Kipa’s mission, its community outreach has expanded over its 50-year history.
Hale Kipa Programs and Services (with number of clients served over 12 months)
– Kamala Homes (192)
– Hale Lanipolua Assessment Center (33)
– Transitional Living Program and Residences (12)
– Haloa House,(6)
Independent Living Program Training Home (7)
– Step-Up Housing Program (50)
– Hale Pauahi Towers and Keeaumoku Training Apartments (12)
– Community Outreach and Advocacy (80)
– Transitional Foster Care (16)
– Kai Like Program (178)
Intensive In-home Programs (301)
– Youth Outreach (450+)
Independent Living/Imua Kakou (250)
– HAP in-facility (55)
– Aftercare Monitoring (WRAP) (51)
– Trafficked Victim Assistance Program (15)
– Hookala (97)
– School Success (34)
– School Attendance Support Services (55)
Go to halekipa.org for more information on the programs and services.
For example, a team of counselors works the mean streets of Hawaii, building relationships with homeless youth and making them aware of alternatives available to them. Pletan-Cross has a special appreciation for these counselors because that was how he got his start in social service.
Born in North Dakota into a family of school teachers, he knew at an early age that his future would be helping others. Blessed with an independent spirit, he never liked his given name, Ernest Pletan Jr., and instead insisted on being called Punky, a version of a childhood nickname. Decades later, “Punky” still appears on his business cards, his correspondence, even his medical records.
Punky Pletan became Punky Pletan-Cross when he and his wife Cris married and decided to hyphenate their last name. “Pletan-Cross sounded better than Cross-Pletan,” he told me.
A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War – he opposed the war, not the military – he instead joined VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) as a street counselor in Massachusetts. He later founded a community organizing agency focusing on direct intervention, and earned an MBA from Boston University in 1979. He began forming an attachment to Hawaii in the 1990s and applied for and got the Hale Kipa job in 1998.
Plans for a home of its own – Hale Kipa means House of Friendliness in the Hawaiian language – began in 2006 and the nonprofit bought the 4.28-acre West Oahu property a year later. But those initial plans stalled when the original designers came back with a $35 million price tag, Pletan-Cross says. It was apparent that a facility at one-third that price was more realistic.
Efforts to build the facility took on new life in 2012 when Alexander & Baldwin executive Christopher Benjamin became the chair of the capital campaign (he later became president and CEO of A&B). Major donors began to come on board, including the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation with $3 million. The center’s official name is the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Hale Kipa Youth Services Center.
Others joined in, including four donors of $1 million or more: The Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation, DeBartolo Development, Ko Olina Resort Operators Association and the State of Hawaii. Hale Kipa’s 2019 annual report lists more than 300 contributors to the capital campaign.
The project finished on time and on budget and the capital campaign is close to meeting its goal.
Benjamin praises Pletan-Cross for keeping the dream of a new home alive. “I believe in Punky,” he told visitors to the open house. “He made this happen.”
One major donor told me that the success was a team effort. Pletan-Cross kept the vision alive during tough times and Benjamin brought in the money, he said.
Pletan-Cross is proud of Hale Kipa’s agility and its ability to adapt to the changing needs of the community and its clients. That agility is being tested during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did not lay off any staff,” Pletan-Cross told me. “In fact, I made a commitment shortly after the open house that we would pay everyone through the end of June. That actually worked out well for us. The vast majority of the agency was able to stay very connected to the youth, young adults and families that we serve. Most programs were fully open over the last several months.
“We continue to accept referrals while basically doing everything we can to stay safe while remembering that the population that we are privileged to serve is even more vulnerable at a time like this,” he said. “As a result, staff have really stepped up in their commitments to these young people who have nowhere to go and are in placements with us.”
Pletan-Cross believes that child and family abuse, along with mental illness, is much worse than what is being reported.
“As the state reopens, I anticipate that we will begin to hear stories about what has been going on with some families that were not visible previously,” he said.
In that regard, Hale Kipa and other social service agencies are concerned about the possible loss of state government funding at a time when the need for their services is growing.
“I think it will come down to whether the Legislature can come up with a way to balance the budget without draconian cuts to the purchase of service contracts,” he said. “I am hopeful that there will be some thought about what constitutes a rank order of priorities at this point in time.
“I suspect that child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, homelessness and houselessness, and food security will continue to be very high priorities,” he said. “I really do hope that mental health is seen as a priority as well. We are already lagging the nation in a number of areas in terms of adolescent and children’s mental health. I do not think that we can afford to go for an extended period of time with what may well be a delayed response to the depression and anxiety that COVID-19 has brought.”
Contact Punky Pletan-Cross at firstname.lastname@example.org.