The tropical archipelago of Hawaii is a paradise to some, but not all. Robert “Pono” Heanu-Toyama knows. Having been in and out of foster care since he was 7 years old, Pono has been subjected to all the horrors of the system, and at one point was forced to support himself independently long before his 18th birthday. Since that time, he’s received his G.E.D. and is currently working towards a collegiate degree in psychology. Beyond his academic pursuits, Pono was hired as a youth outreach coordinator with Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition (HFYC) where he has toiled as a humble yet effective activist, improving the lives of foster youth on every tier.
His native Hawaiian roots guide his philosophy as an outreach coordinator. The cultural values of “ohana” (meaning “family” beyond blood relation) and “hanai” (informally meaning “adoption” regardless of age) help Pono create a familial atmosphere that encourages and inspires the youth that he teaches. Having become estranged from his own siblings at age 14, Pono sees the value of re-creating family among these transitioning youth. He also imparts these philosophies when he is selecting former foster youth to train as mentors.
Recently, a bill passed in Hawaiian legislature and Pono was essential to this success. The bill extended the age that a youth can stay in voluntary care to 21. Pono was able to rally youth statewide to write in their testimonies and gave his own oral testimony for this and other laws that benefit foster youth. Pono sees that the problems faced by many foster youth begin because there is little input from the youth themselves. Through his work with HFYC, Pono is helping to ensure that every voice is heard and every ear is affected. The future of Hawaiian foster youth is looking much sunnier with Pono at their side.