50 Years of ‘Helping People, Changing Lives’
Across Molokai, the reach of Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) is visible in many forms. There’s the rumbling pink and white bus that transports passengers from town to town. There are the storefronts whose owners have learned to be business savvy through MEO. There are pre-kindergarten keiki who have toddled through MEO’s Head Start program.
“This is probably the most diverse organization you’ve got,” said State Representative Lynn DeCoite. “… I feel this community, if anything, without MEO would be drastically hurt.”
Last Wednesday, the Molokai community celebrated 50 years of MEO’s service within Maui County. Residents came together to enjoy lunch, hula and musical performances, and a look back at MEO’s community programs.
MEO was started as a Community Action Agency on Maui on March 22, 1965. The private nonprofit’s website states that it is dedicated to “eliminate poverty by providing opportunities in education, employment and training, transportation and other areas to help people, help themselves.”
Molokai Branch Director Yolanda Reyes said MEO’s most-utilized service on the island is transportation, as the organization provides the only public bus system on Molokai. She estimated they transport about 100 people a week, from patients attending doctors’ appointments to students returning home from after athletic practices.
“[Parents] have to be so many places at once and I think it takes a lot off of their plate just to make sure their children get home safely,” said Reyes.
Reyes said the organization’s food distribution service also has a wide-reaching impact, as they distribute canned and nonperishable items nearly every day. MEO’s community projects help lower-income families with fees such as security deposits and a first month’s rent. Its nutrition program brings kupuna together regularly for good meals and good company.
“Almost everyone on Molokai has benefitted from MEO activities,” said volunteer and program participant Gladys Brown, who Reyes added “has been with us from day one.”
For many families, MEO has been a part of multiple generations.
DeCoite said her grandmother Becky Mokuau went on many kupuna outings with MEO’s bus service, and DeCoite has taken Core Four business courses with the organization.
“They’ve had many people from this island go through there,” said DeCoite. “They bring to you not just law, but they bring to you resources on where to go, and business plans, start-up, finances.”
Halawa tour guide Sean-Alan Kamai, who attended the celebration, said his father Charles once drove a bus for MEO, and now Sean-Alan brings his kids to Head Start.
Reyes said she loves the chance to be working within the community to meet needs over generations. The Molokai branch employs 16 staff members and has about 30 volunteers.
Community needs have changed and continue to change, MEO Chief Executive Officer Lyn McNeff acknowledged in a Feb. 20 Dispatch article. For example, children, not kupuna, are now the largest group in poverty, according to MEO’s needs assessments. However, McNeff said MEO must counter rising obstacles with “new strategies, targeted funding and a refusal to accept that this situation is inevitable.”