For decades, Vailima Watson has been helping thousands of children believe in themselves. Over the years, she’s taken them under her wing and considers them family – and these kids feel the same way.
Watson started the Kalihi youth program 25 years ago after leaving a similar program at Punahou. What she calls an underprivileged community, she also calls the perfect fit.
“It was meant to be, not just for the kids but for me,” she said.
Every year – and after every school day – Watson and her husband Jerry teach kids lessons beyond the classroom and beyond the tennis court.
“Life to me is to live and to make people happy, and what’s important is each other. It’s not who you are or how rich you are or you got that name brand shirt on. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is you as a person and your character,” said Watson.
It’s a message that she’s been trying to instill in these kids, and it’s working. 98-percent of the kids who go through Watson’s program don’t just graduate from high school, they go on to college too.
However, she admits breaking the mold wasn’t easy.
“Their idea of the community is just in the housing – nowhere else. If they went somewhere else, they would go, ‘We don’t belong,’” said Watson.
She’s learned that sometimes it takes months of serving and a little caress to score. And when that finally happens, everyone wins.
“You can’t take anything else with you when you leave this world. You only take your good works and what you’ve done and how you treated people, so that’s really great for me to see for them to be successful with that because I know they’re going to pass that on to their kids and their kids will pass on to their kids – it’s a cycle,” said Watson.
Watson’s program is based out of Kalihi Valley District Park. It falls under the guide of “Kokua Kalihi Valley,” which offers the program free of charge for students in the community.