Kohala Welcome Center: more than a welcome

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<p>Volunteer guide Tommy Tinker speaks with visitors in the lobby area of the North Kohala Welcome Center. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>The Kohala Welcome Center is located in Hawi, just before town, offering out of town visitors information about the community. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Kevin Zable, visiting from Cedar Falls, Iowa, examines a map of Hawaii at the Kohala Welcome Center. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Christine Richardson, executive director, left, goes over scheduling with Juanita “Goochi” Rivera, Executive Assistant, at the North Kohala Welcome Center. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL FOR NHN)</p>
<p>Signs explaining a brief history of Kohala are available to visitors at the Kohala Welcome Center. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL FOR NHN)</p>

“To this day, elders walk in and say ‘I remember the blue jeans were over there, and cans of sardines on the shelves,” said Christine Richardson, executive director of the North Kohala Community Resource Center. “For us, it’s really important to retain the integrity of the building.”

Located in the 80-year-old Fukada General Store (aka Dawn’s Kohala, Hawi General Store and Island Community Lending), NKCRC celebrated its 10th birthday last fall. At the same time, they held a blessing for the aloha-filled Kohala Welcome Center which opened in January, 2012 in the same building.

For the 13,500 visitors who stopped in during that first year, the center is more than welcome. “We took a survey, and the things people said they wanted most were clean restrooms, maps and somebody to answer questions,” said Richardson. “They want to know how to get to the (King Kamehameha) statue, to Pololu and where is a good place to eat.”

“It took about 2 ½ years to raise the money to pay for all the pieces we wanted to build,” said Richardson. The space still has its traditional storefront, complete with old-fashioned safe, now used to collect donations, high ceilings and wood floors. The original shelves, sans sardines, line one wall. On the new deck in the back, two large, ADA accessible restrooms overlook a jungle of avocado, citrus trees and twining vines. Below, as if to earn renewed appreciation for modern plumbing, remnants of the store’s old outhouse remain, a tree growing out of its roof.

“Every single craftsman in town donated skills,” said Richardson. “Carpenters, roofers, plumbers, painters, tile-setters … This community is really proud to have a nice way to greet visitors in the way they want to greet them.”

To introduce folks to Kohala’s history and culture, the Center is staffed with trained Kohala Guides, seven days a week. Volunteers like Micky Irwin greet guests, answer questions and make friends quickly.

“It’s nice to get out and talk to different people,” said Irwin, who had recently met a man from Michigan. “He said he literally found a gold mine in his yard,” said Irwin, “He made $5 million, sold it and said ‘I’m going to travel the world.’” There are 20 Kohala guides on the team, including some “snowbirds,” who may have homes in the area, and visit between December and April. (New volunteers are always welcome, and are encouraged to contact Richardson at NKCRC, 889-5523.)

Inside the Welcome Center, a number of books, maps, CDs and other mission-related products are displayed for sale, including “The Painted King,” a book about the restoration of the King Kamehameha I Statue in Kapa’au.

“The community stepped up and made decisions about how they wanted to help with the statue,” said Richardson. “We are very proud to carry the book. The conservator Glen Wharton said he had never worked in a community that cares so much about their public sculpture.”

“The legacy of Kohala is something that has to be told,” said lifetime educator Fred Cachola, who now lives on Oahu and continues to work closely with SKCRC. “People change so rapidly, and many malihini do not understand the historical treasure they’ve adopted as their home… unless we tell them.”

“The Welcome Center is very important for that,” said Cachola. “Nothing is more powerful than a community telling its story in its own way. These are people who lived that history,” he said.

That history is told along the Welcome Center’s historic corridor, with a dramatic storyboard display, sharing Kohala’s story in words, art and photos. Near the entrance, present-day NKCRC projects are spotlighted, such as the Kamehameha Day Celebration, the Kohala Country Fair and many others.

An award-winning nonprofit established in 2002, NKCRC has assisted over 115 community projects in its 10 years, providing “local support, bridges to funding and education that benefit the community” in the areas of wellness, agriculture, art, community, culture, education and recreation. With a wide network of funder relationships, and a decade of experience, NKCRC has proved itself an invaluable resource.

How does NKCRC work?

Community members have an idea for a program or event, and bring it to the NKCRC. If the concept aligns with their mission, then Richardson and her team can shepherd the process, providing education and resources to help find funders, write proposals, serve as fiscal sponsors and more. Projects are far-reaching and diverse, with everything from art, agriculture and archery, to yoga and youth ranch.

Recently, NKCRC was recognized as one of the state’s best small nonprofits in Hawaii Business Magazine, who wrote, “In many ways, selecting NKCRC as a best nonprofit is cheating. As an agency whose mission is to serve as a fiscal sponsor and general enabler of other organizations, NKCRC can be thought of as a stand-in for the dozens of projects they support and the people behind them. But that’s exactly the point. The success of NKCRC is the quintessential bottom-up, self-organizing body that is community-based development.”

Richardson credits much of their remarkable success to the community itself, and to founder Bob Martin and the board of directors. “Everybody who comes to our board leaves their ego at the door,” she said. “It’s one of the most wonderful boards anywhere. They really get the mission; they show up; and they bring their time and talents to the Resource Center.”

NKCRC is planning a unique “Recognition Evening” at Historic Puakea Ranch on Saturday, April 27 from 5 to 9 p.m., with music by John Cruz and David Gomes. With a story of its own, Puakea Ranch is a fully restored paniolo enclave, featuring four private cottages in a quiet, ocean-view setting mauka of Akoni Pule Highway, between mile marker 18 and 19. Recently named in Fodor’s top 100 hotels for local experience, the 140-year-old ranch has been featured in Sunset magazine, American Cowboy and others.

Reserved seats for NKCRC’s Recognition Evening are $65 per person ($50 open seating), including gourmet pupus prepared by top local chefs, two drinks from the beer and wine bar, exciting live auction and presentation of Project and Lifetime Achievement Awards. Tickets (and restrooms) are available at NKCRC.

For more information about the North Kohala Community Resource Center and Welcome Center, please visit www.NorthKohala.org, find them on Facebook, call (808) 889-5523, or stop by. The Welcome Center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.