When people think of charities and the work that they do, it paints a colorful picture, full of difference-making and passion-fueled work. To think only along this dimension, though, leaves the majority of the Hoku story untold. Founding Hoku has been a story of trial and error, uncertainty, and most importantly persistence.
In 2012, 6 months before completing my Teach for America commitment in Hawai'i, I --- Mark Cassidy --- approached my colleague Dane Carlson with an idea. I was unsettled by the fact that my 8th graders that I worked tirelessly to educate could fall victim to the statistics of a struggling high school.
In Waianae, Hawaii, less than 10% of students graduate from a 4-year college within 5 years; the high school dropout rate is 4 times the national average; and nearly three quarters of the students’ families find themselves in economic hardship.
Dane and I decided to establish a program that would hold Waianae students to higher expectations, provide mentorship, and award scholarships. In January 2012, we incorporated the Waianae Coast Scholarship Fund with a vision of upending the statistics in Waianae by aiming for 90% of our students to attend and graduate college.
There was one major problem, though. I was leaving the island in May. Other nonprofit leaders that we met with bluntly described us as “hopeless” and that we would need “a decade” to get our program operational. But we only had 5 months.
My take was simple: getting something started would be better than doing nothing at all. So with no money, no staff, and a fledgling idea of what the program would offer we began our work. By summer, we had designed a skeleton of a program, admitted 15 students, and corralled a team of volunteer teachers who would help get the wheels moving.
However, Year 1 was a mess. Our volunteers and students had little guidance on what they should be doing. We had no revenue outside in-kind donations from friends and family. And somehow we even managed to botch our application process.
You live, learn, and move on, though. By the 4th quarter of that year, we had successfully organized our first service events, college prep workshops, and even managed to raise $15,000 for scholarships.
It remained positive until Year 2. The program doubled in size to support 32 students, and more than half of our volunteers left the island. We were back to square one with a bigger problem, less resources, and larger budget to fill.
This is when we invented the Occasion for Education, an annual benefit in Chicago that would help raise a funding base for Hoku. Within 2 years, the benefit brought 1,800 attendees through its doors, was supported by 175 volunteers, and raised over $55,000. The city of Chicago had literally propped up our Waianae program to live another day.
Hence in Year 3, we came back invigorated. We hired 6 part-time staff members, expanded to another high school and 30 more students, and had thousands of pro bono hours donated from professional software engineers and designers to revamp our website and create a web tool called Imua that helps students track their progress throughout the program.
Hoku today supports 60 students, and 92% of them are on pace to being college ready. Hoku Scholars average a 3.83 GPA and complete 32 hours of service each year. 95% are involved in extracurricular activities with more than half in leadership roles. All students complete ongoing test prep, attend college workshops, and apply for scholarships and financial aid.
In 2015, we will bring Hoku to our second city – Chicago. We plan to hire our first full-time CEO and establish a Board of Directors. As we continue to solidify our foundation, we will expand our program resources to support earlier grades and more vulnerable student demographics.
If we have demonstrated anything over the years, it is that we are here to stay. We know the work that we do matters and that it is putting more underserved students on a track to college.
We thank all those that have believed in us. We hope our story has proven to you that we are moving forward and that we will find a way to achieve our vision of more than 90% of our students being prepared to succeed in college.