In the Hawaiian language the word "kuleana" literally translates to "responsibility", yet in the Hawaiian perspective to have "kuleana" is a privilege. Itʻs in this kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) world view that Nā Kama Kai (Children of the Sea) embraces its responsibility to empower the next generation by connecting children to the kai (ocean) and ‘āina (that which feeds you) through ocean clinics, education and leadership development.
"The key thing for us at Nā Kama Kai is that we're here to empower children - we want to make our children stronger. We want to give access to the ocean to our children because they're going to be the human beings that are running the businesses that impact Mother Nature; they're going to be the politicians that impact Mother Nature," explains Nā Kama Kai Chief Executive Officer/Founder Duane DeSoto. "If we can raise our children in this ocean culture that we're creating - this ocean culture that is directly connected to our kūpuna (ancestors) - then they're going to educate their parents and eventually they are going to be educating their children. So it's so important that we create the process and create the access so that this knowledge and this kuleana can live on for seven generations and seven generations from there."
The purpose of Nā Kama Kai is to put keiki (children) in the ocean safely where they can comfortably foster a connection to the ocean. This non-profit organizationʻs mission is to grow self-confident and proactive youth that eventually become environmentally-conscious leaders in the community.
As a traveling pro surfer, DeSoto was inspired to create Nā Kama Kai when he realized that his upbringing in the powerful waters of Mākaha was a privilege unlike any other place in the world. He was blessed to have uncles and aunties who were world-class watermen and waterwomen - like Buffalo Keaulana and the late Rell Sunn - at Mākaha to help mold him to be a pro surfer.
For nearly 17 years, since the age of 12, DeSoto chased a world longboard championship. It wasn't until 2010 - two years after starting Nā Kama Kai - that he would claim the world title at his beloved homebreak, Mākaha, in front of his family and his friends. He correlates his competitive success with the creation of the 501(c)3.
"Nā Kama Kai coming up in 2008 really gave me a way to express my ocean passions and I think was a huge key to winning in 2010," admits DeSoto.
Although there is a world-wide perception that everyone in Hawai'i can swim, surf and fish, in reality not every keiki has access to the ocean. Or for that matter, access to a network of experienced watermen and waterwomen to help the child safely play in Hawaiian waters. That is where Nā Kama Kai came in with the ocean clinics across O‘ahu that are free for keiki. These one-day events bring children together with "uncles and aunties" that love the ocean to guide them in five stations or educational pillars of Nā Kama Kai: K.A.I. (Ocean Safety); Hoʻokele (Wayfinding); Mālama Kai (Papahānaumokuākea); Surfing and Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke (Learn By Doing); Hoe Waʻa (canoe perspective of the ahupuaʻa).
Like the rest of the world, the global pandemic severely inhibited Nā Kama Kai's ability to gather for ocean clinics. The pause in ocean clinics created by the pandemic gave Nā Kama Kai an opportunity to focus on initiatives that were previously put on the back burner in years past. According to Nā Kama Kai Chief Operations Officer Matthew Kauwe, the 501(c)3 is working to help local government get ocean safety curriculum in the public school system.
"Nā Kama Kai has been asked to be a resource to the Department of Education as they are requiring all of their principals and complex superintendents across the state to have at least one grade of ocean safety education in grades K through five by May of this year," explains Kauwe.
According to Kauwe, these past couple years has also allowed Nā Kama Kai ample time to set up its headquarters at Pōka‘ī Bay. They envision a community center that will offer after school meals, safe access to ocean activities, cultural education and tutors.
"Currently, our biggest focus is to take full advantage of the access we have at Pōka‘ī Bay - we have 1.25 acres with a two bedroom house, and we're calling it Hālau Nā Kama Kai,"says Kauwe. "It is going to be our headquarters, base of operations and it's really going to be a great community center for all the kids and families that live in the area."
In addition, Nā Kama Kai has also started a project to restore a 30- foot, double-hull Hawaiian sailing canoe at Hālau Nā Kama Kai. Furthermore, the non-profit organization is also developing an animated series that will highlight Nā Kama Kai's five educational pillars to be utilized in a digital curriculum for distance learning.
Hawaiians gave the world surfing and Nā Kama Kai wants to give the world a platform for children's ocean safety with an incorporation of culture no matter the geographic location.
"While we are building this curriculum based out of a need here in Hawai'i, and we know that our children need it here, we also have the intention of taking that knowledge and connecting it to other cultures around the world," says DeSoto. "What we hope to do is create a platform around ocean safety and children that can be a source for all cultures and all peoples and that's going be where we really reach our true potential. Hawai‘i is the opportunity to give ocean safety and cultural appreciation to the world and Nā Kama Kai is stoked to be on that path.
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