Compassion abundant on Puna farm
By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
KEA'AU, Hawai'i When Zeb Nelson was leaving Pahoa High School's special-education program four years ago, his job prospects were bleak.
Hugh Clark The Honolulu Advertiser
From left: Zeb Nelson, Ronald Iopa and job coach B.J. Blinn take a break from their duties at Puna Kamali'i Flowers, a Big Island farm that provides job training for the developmentally disabled.
Hugh Clark The Honolulu Advertiser
His parents, Tom and Vicki Nelson, refused to accept that their son had no future.
"We never let anyone tell us no," said Vicki.
So the couple started Puna Kamali'i Flowers Inc., in the Shipman Industrial Park, to provide job training for Zeb, now 24, and others like him who were once deemed unemployable.
The three-acre farm has 10,000 ti plants, all donated, and sells leaves to florists for a nickel apiece at top price. It also sells shredded newsprint in 20-pound bags to flower shippers around the island.
Zeb Nelson and Ronald Iopa are its first full-time employees. Two others have part-time jobs and others are being invited to attend a 320-hour training program partially sponsored by state and federal agencies.
The farm program one of only three like it in the state works because the trainees need a lot of patience and repetition. "Just over and over again with a lot of smiles. It works," Tom Nelson said.
The other two programs are in Kona and on Kaua'i.
Trainees learn how to use basic tools such as shovels and wheelbarrows, how to prune and harvest the ti plants, and how to sort and shred newsprint. The workers also learn about responsibility by returning their tools to the shed and washing up after work.
The Nelsons moved to the Big Island from Washington state in 1993. Tom Nelson is a retired, disabled heavy-equipment operator who was injured while building the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea.
Although the farm is run as a for-profit enterprise, he does not get paid. The Nelsons' other two sons, and even their 8-year-old daughter, also help out. Only Vicki Nelson and supervisor B.J. Blinn draw a small salary.
Vicki said any profits are put back in to the farm, which would not exist without the help of neighbors and friends.
Nearby Willocks Construction Corp. has provided fill material and heavy equipment when needed. "My hat's off to them," company owner Hugh Willocks said of the Nelsons. Willocks said he has been amazed at the hard work and upbeat attitude he's witnessed at Puna Kamali'i Flowers.
Developmentally disabled clients are referred to the farm through state agencies and the ARC of Hilo. The Nelsons, who have volunteered with Special Olympics for 16 years, also use their contacts with that group to identify potential candidates for the program.
Although Puna Kamali'i Flowers hired the first four trainees, other candidates will be placed in jobs in the Big Island's substantial flower and plant nursery industry.
Officials who deal with the developmentally disabled have high praise for the Nelsons.
"Tom has this vision. He gives you hope," said Woodson "Woody" Kita, a 28-year social worker on the Big Island. "He has tremendous commitment. He has put his money where his mouth is."
Mike Tamanaha, of the state Health Department's Developmental Disabilities Services Branch, said the Puna program is rare. "I wish we had a lot more people like Tom," Tamanaha said. "It (the farm training) has that good feeling."