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Movin’ on Up (To Kahala)

In April, Dorie-Ann Kahale and her daughters made headlines around the globe when they were chosen to move from a homeless shelter to a mansion on Kahala Avenue. Four months later, are they still living the fairy tale?

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Dorie looks forward to the day her daughters walk down this white granite staircase, on their way to prom.

People around her have reacted in different ways. Relatives and friends she hasn’t seen in years stopped by the house, even while she has been at work, and asked her daughters if they could take a look around. At the homeless shelter, residents congratulated her while they waited for their own miracles; she saw many of them again when she went back to tape an interview with the Discovery Channel.

Some of Dorie’s friends haven’t been as excited about the news. “At my church, some of them are not happy for me; I’d walk up to some of them, and they would just turn away,” she says. “My auntie said to me, ‘Don’t be high-minded.’ I said, ‘Have I? I would not act like that.’ All it is, is a home. In reality, it’s not mine.”

All of the neighbors she’s met have welcomed her to Kahala. During her first week in her new home, Dorie stood in her backyard, surveying her pool, which had been filled with dirt—something Kawamoto had done at all three properties. Her neighbor peered over the fence between their properties and introduced himself as Gerry Blanchette, a retired Navy master chief. “Hey, your pool—don’t worry about it,” he told her. “My pool is your pool. Anytime the kids want to swim, they can come over.”

It’s been more than three months since the Kahales moved into the four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath-house, and the media attention has died down. The house feels normal now. Like home.

It’s a Tuesday night. Dorie has just gotten home from work, her red Nissan Xterra is parked under the porte-cochere. Out back, Dorie’s Uncle Paul—she calls him Papa—waters the yard. Soon after they moved in, Uncle Paul planted Bermuda grass seeds in the pool; now they look like rows of lily pads in the earth.

Inside the French doors, Kawamoto’s style is evident in the furnishings he picked out, including the green brocade curtains with gold tassels and the hand-painted armoires. They mix with furniture donated from friends and strangers. A neighbor gave Dorie a used 52-inch Sony TV that has yet to be plugged in. A woman Dorie met once insisted on buying her a hulking entertainment center at the Salvation Army. A local pastor offered to take care of her monthly house phone bill.

“When I moved in here, people from heaven knows where popped in and wanted to donate all these things,” Dorie says. “The Lord has really blessed me.”

In the living room, a cream-colored chaise is overrun by Branzi’s stuffed animals. She had gotten several of them for Christmas while living at the shelter. “When she got them, she’d say, ‘Let’s put them in a box, and we’ll open it up when we get a home in Kahala,’” Dorie says. “We have five boxes of stuffed animals, but we can’t give them away now. It brings us back to the reality of where we came from.”

The kitchen is packed with stainless steel appliances, which the family uses to prepare lunch for all 200 members of the Lanakila Church congregation after Sunday service.

It’s almost 90 degrees, and Dorie’s long, curly hair is pinned back into a bun. She never turns on the central air-conditioning in the house, which is why her monthly electricity bill is only $247—the family’s only major expense living here. Kawamoto assigned two staffers to help with maintenance and landscaping, but Dorie has called them only once, when she discovered that it would cost $50 to replace a broken light fixture. “I figure, we got two hands,” she says. “We can do most of the maintenance ourselves.”

She and her 14-year-old twin daughters act more like girlfriends than a mother and her children. Tisha sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Dorie, playing with her red cell phone. Dorie got each of her girls a phone after they moved in. Kisha sidles up to Dorie’s other shoulder a few minutes later.

“Mom, I’m hungry,” Tisha says. “What’s for dinner?”

“Go cook something,” Dorie says.

“No more food. Can we get McDonald’s?”

“Get food—you just gotta fry ’em up yourself, girl.”

Up the white granite staircase, Branzi naps in her mom’s standard-size bed in the master bedroom. A basket full of unfolded laundry sits a few feet away from Dorie’s white porcelain tub, which never gets used, except when her young nieces and nephews come over and splash around in it like it’s a mini-pool.

A scrapbook sits on an end table near Dorie’s bed. It’s a white plastic binder that holds papers representing everything important to her—an old family portrait, the high school diploma she earned after completing the GED program and her certificate in computer training from Alu Like, a nonprofit that provides social services and educational programs to Hawaiians. On the cover of the binder is a photo of Kawamoto and her family on the day they moved in.

Dorie considers him her “fairy godfather,” an angel. She’s heard about his past—how, in the late 1980s, during what became known as the Japanese bubble, he drove around Honolulu in his white limo, buying close to 200 properties. She heard about complaints that he hadn’t maintained many of the homes and had evicted tenants with only a few weeks’ notice.

But when reporters ask Dorie about his reputation, she asks them, “‘Have you ever met him?’ Most of them haven’t. I’m telling you, he’s just the nicest guy.” She first met Kawamoto when he visited the shelter at Kalaeloa, one month before his office informed her that she was chosen to live in one of his homes. When he saw little Branzi, he told Dorie, “She look Japanese!”

A new neighborhood means new schools for daughters Kisha (left) and Branzi (center). Kamalani is homeschooled.

Kawamoto had his translator ask Dorie if she would be willing to transfer her children to Kahala schools—good schools, he had heard. She said she would. This month, the twins, who attended Aiea Intermediate, will enroll in Kalani High School and Branzi will transfer from Ala Wai Elementary to Kahala.

“I told the twins, ‘Your atmosphere is going to change’—at Kalani, their parents are well-off,” Dorie says. “But I said, ‘Girls, you guys are the most fortunate kids in this damn world.’ Look at these beautiful stairs they get to walk down when they get ready for prom!”

Dorie doesn’t worry about the twins as much as she does about Branzi, her baby. She wonders if she’ll fit into her new school, or if she’ll be teased by classmates whose parents actually own homes in Kahala.

“My baby is kind of nervous, and I keep telling her, ‘Kahala is a very, very good public school,” Dorie says. “You don’t know how much that’s eating me up inside, but I have to send her. It’s a promise I made to Kawamoto.”

On June 30, two weeks before Dorie’s 40th birthday, her house becomes the venue for the Kahale family reunion. By 11 a.m., at least 30 cars line quiet Elepaio Street. More than 200 relatives, many of whom had not seen Dorie’s new place, now lounged in her backyard and family room, wearing matching T-shirts that say: “Kahale Ohana, Together Forever, 2007.” Some of them have been there since the previous night.

The family hasn’t gotten together like this since 2004, when they gathered at Waimanalo Beach Park. When Dorie’s mother and uncle both passed away last year, they decided it was time for another reunion.

Her high-ceilinged foyer is filled with a half-dozen coolers and cases of Coke and bottled water. In the kitchen, two of her cousins keep close watch over a giant pot of beef stew. Out back, about a dozen children splash around in two inflated pools.

The covered patio looks like something out of House and Garden magazine—natural stone flooring, tiki torches and black-and-cream striped curtains. Almost every square foot of her backyard is occupied by a Kahale in a reunion T-shirt, every available seat holds a relative playing cards, catching up and eating poke, chips and boiled peanuts.

Dorie’s sister, Bernie, updates the family tree on her laptop. One of their cousins, Stephanie, arrives and gives as many Kahales as she can grab a hug and a kiss. “So, sis,” she calls out to Dorie, “this is your hale?”

“Come on,” Dorie beckons her toward the living room. “I’ll give you the grand tour!”

A half-hour later, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” blares over the lawn, piped out over the home’s sound system. Dorie tells Tisha to turn it down. Past midnight last night, her neighbor, the retired navy officer’s son, peeked over the fence and asked them to keep it down, and she doesn’t want him to have to do that again.

When the midday sun starts to creep onto the covered patio, a few of the men lug out eight metal poles and a gray tarp to create more shade. It becomes a big production, with a few of the teenage girls jumping in to help. Once the tent is up, the eight of them carry the assembled shelter closer to the house, creating an extension for the black-and-cream striped awning.

Pule! someone calls out. Pule! The food is ready, and it’s time to bless it. The conversations subside, and the overhead music stops. The children emerge from the pools, wrap themselves in beach towels and pick spots in the warm sun. Bernie closes her laptop as everyone rises from their seats and bows their heads.

One of Dorie’s cousins leads the blessing of the food, thanking God for bringing their ohana together on this rare occasion. “Thank you to Dorie for opening her home to us,” she says, her voice the only sound in the now quiet backyard. “Thank you to Mr. Kawamoto, for making this possible.” Barely a second after she finishes, everyone starts to sing the “Ka Mele Hoomaikai,” “The Hawaiian Doxology” that most of them learned as children at Lanakila Church. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Time to eat! The eldest and youngest members of the family stand in line for their food first, piling beef stew, k-alua pig and cabbage, mac salad, Zippy’s chili and hot dogs onto their plastic plates. Dorie doesn’t sit down, but strolls the patio and ushers everyone else to the buffet line to make their plates.

She looks around. It’s been nearly a year since she and daughters first moved onto the beach in Nanakuli, and today she’s hosting her family reunion in a beautiful home on Kahala Avenue. Her home. “I’m so blessed,” she says aloud. “All this time, I feel like God never left my side.”

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