The two words are nearly synonymous. All across the Hawaiian island, vacationers, honeymooners and corporate executives frolic on pristine beaches, picturesque golf courses and upscale resorts with breathtaking views.
But on one small piece of land, a family camps out under a tent in the backyard of what will soon become their home.
Just a few feet away, a group of eight Converse College students are busy painting walls and laying base boards to help make that dream happen.
The Converse group — which also includes two college staff members — is spending spring break this week building two homes for native Hawaiians through Habitat for Humanity’s nationwide “Collegiate Challenge” program. While spending the break on an island known for its romance and stunning natural beauty may seem enviously luxurious to some, the students — who are staying in a local church and sleeping on air mattresses — say their trip is about so much more.
“Obviously Maui was a big lure,” Nicole Cuadrado, a sophomore political science major from Greenville, said via telephone Wednesday as she took a break from installing flooring in one of the homes. But, she added, as a Bonner Leader at Converse who commits 10 to 12 hours a week to community service at the Children’s Center of the Upstate, “I also wanted to experience community service for another community and learn about the Hawaiian culture here.”
“It’s not the Hawaii that you see on the tourist pamphlets and on TV and on the Internet”
Cuadrado said the Converse group has made a personal connection with the future homeowners, and she called the natives “very welcoming people.”
“They have just really shown us great hospitality,” said Converse chaplain Jason Losciuto. “They have shared their stories with us, which is another aspect I wanted our students to come away with is to have an understanding of Hawaiians, their culture, a lot of the struggles they went through the past 50 years becoming a state, and how the native Hawaiians have a strong sense of their own culture and want to hang on to that culture.”
The other Hawaii
According to Losciuto, the people they’re building homes for represent the other side of Hawaii. The family living in the tent has been camped out on the property since August, and will continue to live that way until the house is finished.
“It’s not the Hawaii that you see on the tourist pamphlets and on TV and on the Internet,” Losciuto said. “These are the folks we’re working with, and it’s been a very eye-opening experience for all of us.”
Losciuto said a lease agreement on Maui allows locals who are at least 50 percent native Hawaiian, and can trace their ancestry on the island back three generations, to acquire land for 99 years at $1 per year. But often the homes built on these properties are of poor quality.
And so Habitat entered the picture, Losciuto said, to make sure homes were being constructed up to code. Through the program, the Converse students are guided through the process, but no one is holding their hands.
“They’re putting us to work pretty hard — right now I’m installing some baseboards and we can really see the progress that we’re making,” said Michelle Wilson, a senior psychology major from Sumter. “These girls are working hard every single day. We’re sweating up a storm.”
Wilson is no stranger to hard labor. For the past eight years she’s participated in a weeklong summer mission trip through her church to help rebuild broken-down homes. She hopes the Habitat project will be an awakening for her classmates and other Converse students they share their story with back home.
“Some of these girls have never been through this kind of experience and they’re learning what it’s like,” Wilson said. “Some of us are used to a big home and not having to do manual labor, so for some of these girls who are inexperienced, it’s eye-opening for them and we get to go back and share with our other Converse girls that, hey, it’s not so bad getting your hands dirty. And it’s really rewarding.”
In order just to make the trip, the Converse students were required to put in more than 20 hours of service with the Spartanburg affiliate of Habitat. They also met weekly from January to March to learn about poverty in Hawaii and gain a better understanding of the scope of the poverty issue in the islands.
Of course, there was no reading material as vivid as watching the homeowners — who are required, as well, to work on the home as part of the program — camped out on the very plot of land where the students are working on the natives’ future home.
“It’s very heart-breaking to see that they have to camp outside right in the back yard,” Wilson said. “It’s literally just a tent and a tarp covering it to protect them from the rain. It’s really unbelievable to us.”
But it’s also helped the Converse group bond with the family and learn more about the real Hawaii and its people.
“We’ve made friends with the homeowners,” said Cuadrado, who has previously worked for the St. Bernard Project, helping rebuild homes in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina survivors. “They invited us to their cookout and that’s something they don’t normally do, but they knew we were very genuine about wanting to learn about their background, their culture. And they’re very close-knit. It reminds me of my Spanish heritage; they’re very close-knit as a family and they’re very warm and open.”
Consequently, the Converse students have been enjoying an authentic Hawaiian experience, including eating local foods, being invited to plays and learning a Hawaiian word of the day.
“Apart from the (house) construction, apart from being in Maui, I really wanted them to come away with a better understanding of the Hawaiian culture, and so far, so good,” Losciuto said.
And doing it all in paradise? Well, that’s just icing on the cake. “It’s indescribable how beautiful it is here,” Wilson said. “I’m an outdoorsy-type person, and all the flowers, the different kind of trees, all of that stuff … it’s jaw-dropping.”
This article was written by Gary Glancy for the Spartanburg Herald Journal