When people hear I live in Hawaii, most will ask what it’s like to live in paradise. It’s exactly as they imagine – the beach is fifteen minutes away, I climb ridges as a weekend activity, the weather is warm year-round, and fresh fish is a staple of the local cuisine. There’s not a single day that passes where I’m not thankful for this beautiful island.
However, as with most beautiful and coveted things, there is a darker side that’s less talked about, less known. There is a price for paradise, and that price has cost many the opportunity to have a good education, a home in a safe neighborhood, and a job to pay the bills plus support a family.
As Playground Art Crew’s founder Jeff explains, “Living in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t have much perspective on the state of poverty in our islands. It was all that I knew. As I got older, I realized there was a large disparity between the reality of Hawaii’s local culture and the tropical paradise perpetuated by our tourism industry. Tourism is Hawaii’s number one industry, and many times poverty is swept under the rug.”
Hawaii has one of the highest costs of living in the nation, yet also some of the lowest wages. As of 2016, one in six Hawaii residents live in poverty. This is the harsh reality of paradise.
Jeff Kaneta founded Playground in August 2016, using his background in business and graphic design as a way to give back to his community. His mission is to inspire creativity in students through providing art supplies and lessons, all funded through the Playground store. Each clothing purchase from the store translates into a bag of art supplies for a student in need.
“Social entrepreneurial organizations like TOMS and Warby Parker had a lot to do with the one-for-one donation concept. I liked the simplicity of our customers having a direct impact towards our company’s mission.
“There were many people who helped me get the ball rolling. My current roommate helped me get my foot in the door at Waianae Elementary by allowing me to do my first donation day and art lesson for his class. My girlfriend along with one of my close friends from college assisted me in photographing and documenting our time with the students.
“It took a few months before anything resembling a business started to take shape. I had to become a jack-of-all-trades and a master of asking for help, a lot of help. I knew it would be quite an undertaking going in but I had faith that my belief in what the company stands for would help me persevere.”
Once a specific purchase goal is reached, PAC partners with a local school to arrange a donation coupled with an hour-long art lesson. With each donation, PAC hopes to empower students with tools for self-expression in the midst of their uncontrollable and often volatile environments.
So far, Jeff and his team have worked with schools in Waianae and Kalihi, two of the poorest and most underprivileged neighborhoods on the island of Oahu.
I assisted PAC with their first donation to Waianae Elementary School in November. About an hour away from central Honolulu, Waianae is located on the far west side of the island and is known as a dangerous and underdeveloped area rampant with gangs and crime. Even among the locals here, it’s not a common place to visit.
The parking lot of the elementary school is adjacent to project-based apartment housing, and across the street are dozens of homeless tents – some of them home to Waianae students.
PAC’s visit, in the teacher’s words, was a ‘special treat’. With dwindling funding for arts programs in public schools and minimal time dedicated to art in the curriculum, it was apparent this type of treat didn’t happen often. The students were giddy and jumping out of their seats when told the supplies were theirs to keep, and that we’d be using those materials to make art.
“The highlight of the project has to be the interaction with the students,” said Jeff. “There is something truly special about a gift that is unexpected. It’s not so much about giving away free art supplies as it is giving students an experience that they can revisit after leaving the classroom. It’s about feeling empowered.
“To anyone else thinking of setting up a similar project, go for it. With any business venture you must be willing to jump into unknown waters, but if your mission can keep you focused and inspired, you will be able to make positive changes for students who deserve it.”