Bringing it Back

Lana’i youth gain confidence and experience in an industry that’s very close to home: Tourism.

With a population of just over 3,000, Lana‘i can feel very small–especially for a teenager who’s never left the island. But Mike Lopez has found a way to give the next generation a window to the outside, while remembering the cultures and traditions that are unique to the island.

A 20-year career with the Marines took Lopez, a Lana‘i native, around the world, from the Philippines to Korea and across the continental United States. At the close of his military career, he chose to come back to Lana‘i to share his mana‘o (wisdom). Lopez hopped around from the Department of Health to the Boys and Girls Club of America, until he landed a job with Trilogy, Lana‘i’s only commercial tour boat company, six years ago.

Mike Lopez and his students aboard Trilogy I, docked in Manele Bay. photo: Robin Kaye

In 2004, Lopez, the director of operations of Trilogy, com-bined resources with Alu Like Inc. and the Coalition for a Drug Free Lana‘i (CDFL) to create a mentoring program to train teenagers in the island’s top industry—tourism. He says that when the Coon brothers, owners of Trilogy, offered their business as a training ground, everything started to come together. “It has to be a heart thing, you go for it first and let the reward come after,” he says of the initial planning stages. Lopez says he wasn’t going to wait for the next guy to start the program and thought, “If not me, who? If I have the opportunity [to start the program], I’m going to do it,” he says. The program, now in its second year, just received a contract to continue for a third.

For two weeks the students study each area of the company’s business: boat tours, ecotours, beach activities and food service at the Hale O Manele Restaurant. After completing the training, including CPR and lifeguard courses, they assist in taking visitors on tours around the island. Twice a day, Trilogy brings a boatload of guests from Lahaina to Lana‘i to spend the day on the island, exploring the town, snorkeling and learning about the local culture. Time with the guests provides an opportunity for the students to share their own mana‘o about fishing, the hula and growing up on Lana‘i.

The program trains seven to 10 students over a one-year period. “They learn to communicate,” says Lopez. “In the country they’re kind of shy, we try to break them out of that.” Students develop social skills and self-confidence.

Although the students come from all walks of life, some with incarcerated parents, others from well-off families, they have one thing in common. “They’re at that age where they’re just experiencing life—it’s the best time for them to get out of that shell,” Lopez says, noting that most students start off very shy, but, throughout the program, become more and more comfortable interacting with guests.

“It’s about educating, empowering and inspiring [the youth] to learn something and have a career,” says Joelle Aoki, executive director of CDFL and resource coordinator for Alu Like Inc. The program, which is funded by Alu Like Inc. and CDFL, aims to provide the next generation on Lana‘i with experiences that will expand their options after high school. “The kids not only learn maritime skills, but also about culture, public relations and communication,” she adds.

“Tourism is our No. 1 industry here on Lana‘i,” says Aoki. “We want to give them the tools they need to have the upper hand in an industry that’s right here at home.”

On Lana‘i, tourists have a different agenda, Lopez says. “It’s not about coming here, grabbing a beer, sitting on the beach. Tourists come here to learn and see what it’s about,” he says, enforcing the most important aspect of the program: keeping the culture and traditions of Lana‘i in the forefront. “We have kids who do the hula and make lei,” Lopez says. “It’s about bringing it back to malama (take care of) the island culture.”

When the students perform the hula, chant, blow the conch shell or serve food, they explain to the guests what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. In a time when the Islands are becoming overly commercialized, Lopez says, “The Trilogy program is allowing [local culture] to grow and live again.”

“I’m teaching them not to be ashamed of what they have,” he says, noting that many students are initially embarrassed around guests because of their heavy pidgin accents. After spending a few days around the visitors the students are more comfortable with who they are. Island life is what has always attracted tourists to Hawai‘i, Lopez explains. “They come here to see us and how we live. We don’t have to change as soon as a guest shows up.”

“My favorite part of the job is giving the kids an opportunity to excel in what they do best,” Lopez says. Over the next few years, Lopez plans on expanding the program, finding more corporations to get involved. “I want everyone to have these programs in their companies—it’s our job to nurture the next generation.”

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. For information: