On the west side of O'ahu, in a town called Mākāha, a small garden flourishes next to a schoolhouse. There, the people of Mākāha work the soil and plant the seeds that feed their community. They believe in harmony and living in perfect alignment with all things. Some say that perfect alignment – along with Whitworth's collaborative community – helped several alumni and faculty bring eight students from one of Hawai'i's most impoverished areas to Whitworth.
Jaylen Gonzales, his cousin Tihani Evangelista, five other Wai'anae High School students, and a student from Nānākuli had applied to and received acceptance letters from Whitworth. The problem was, they couldn't afford to attend.
Wai'anae High football coach and Whitworth alumnus Walter Young, '03, encourages his players to look at Whitworth. In fact, 18 students from Hawai'i currently play for the Pirates. "The Whitworth football coaches saw me play in a bowl game and they liked me," Gonzales says. "It was the first time I felt like someone really wanted me."
Gonzales sought help from high school counselor and Whitworth alumna Desiré DeSoto, '96. "The minute Jaylen walked out of my office, I knew I had to do something," she says. She called Keith Lambert, '91, assistant professor of education at Whitworth. DeSoto and Lambert both competed on the Whitworth swim team in the '90s, but they didn't see each other again until 2013 at an on-campus event.
At that event, Lambert shared with DeSoto how he wanted to bring Whitworth education students to Wai'anae to teach. His first group taught at DeSoto's high school in 2015. Every Jan Term new students return, but now they teach in classrooms at multiple schools. They also work in the community's garden.
"When Desiré called, we spoke about applying for a grant and immediately thought of the Kamehameha Foundation, which has a Christian mission and vision," Lambert says. "Before I knew it, so many people at Whitworth were furiously working on the application." The grant was approved, and the eight freshmen arrived on campus this fall.
For Lambert, the experience has been surreal. "It's probably one of the greatest joys I've had as an educator," he says. "There is something incredible about being part of something bigger than oneself and knowing you played a small part."
For the students, it is now their turn to grow and then give back with the Whitworth spirit in their hearts. "I'm excited to go home," Evangelista says. "Being able to use our experiences here to help our community is a really good thing."