Finding hope through harmony
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Three days a week, Mika Togiola and two of his musically inclined childhood friends return to the Kalihi public-housing project where they grew up in the 1980s and '90s to sing and play instruments with a new generation of at-risk kids, near-mirror images of themselves at that age.
The name of the fledgling — but growing — program, "Hope Through Music," says it all.
"We're using music as a tool to mentor them," Togiola said. "We influence them with talk of education, strong families and community involvement."
Togiola, a Hawai'i Pacific University graduate student and clerk at the city Office on Culture and the Arts, started the project in March with $1,500 out of his own pocket and the help of two of his friends, Kenneth Aiolupotea and Tielu Aipopo.
All three have musical backgrounds. Togiola used to sing with a group, then was part of the production team for Hawai'i singer Pati. Aiolupotea, a suicide prevention counselor at The Queen's Medical Center, and Aipopo are choir directors at their respective churches.
The trio started "Hope Through Music" because of an experience they had when they were young and living at Kalihi Valley Homes. Togiola said one day, a gangster-turned-community advocate persuaded them to join kids from Kuhio Park Terrace, another housing project, and sing together.
At the time, and today, there are frictions between youth at the two projects. Singing together, Togiola said, dissolved those tensions — and pushed him to pursue a career in music.
Sixty kids from Kalihi Valley Homes signed up for the "Hope Through Music" program when it started, and 20 have come regularly to sing and play 'ukulele and guitar. Children from ages 6 to 18 participate, learning everything from gospels to contemporary songs in a cappella or with musical accompaniment.
They gave their first concert just a few weeks after they started in a gymnasium at the housing project. Less than a month later, the older members of the group elicited hearty applause when they performed an a cappella version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the city's Kalihi economic development summit at Farrington High School.
One of those performing at the summit was 17-year-old Sammy Pelona, who loves to sing along to oldies, especially the Manhattans. She said she has always enjoyed singing, but had only been able to perform at her church. She wants to pursue singing as a career, and hopes concerts with the "Hope" group will give her more confidence when she goes on stage.
Pelona's 13-year-old brother and two sisters, 15 and 7, also are in the program, though they are learning to play instruments.
Togiola said his next step is to start up a similar program in a few months at Kuhio Park Terrace. The kids at the two projects will eventually practice together, just like Togiola and his friends did as kids. Then, they'll put on a Broadway-style musical for the residents of the projects.
"The goal," Togiola said, "is we want to try and promote some sort of reconciliation between these neighbors."
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.