After 43 years in real estate, Donna Ting knows the market is hot on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where she lives and works. But it’s not her commission check she’s thinking about. She’s worried that adults with special needs can’t afford to remain in Hawaii after they no longer qualify for support from the special education system.
“What do you do when that kid turns 21?” says Ting, CRS, GRI, a REALTOR® and broker-owner of Tri Isle Realty & Development Co. in Wailuku, Hawaii. “You have to have 128 percent of the average disability check just to afford an apartment here, and that’s before buying food and other essentials. Nobody was addressing that.”
In 2004, Ting teamed up with Andrea Hall Rodgers, another Maui resident worried about this trend, to help prompt change. They put together a 501(c)3 filing, a business plan, and 45 letters of support from the community to convince the mayor of Paia, Maui, to donate a 12-acre parcel of land on which to build a facility for their day program for adults with disabilities. Installing a water meter was a challenge, as there was a five- to 10-year waiting list. (Central Maui’s drinking water comes from an aquifer under the West Maui Mountains, so getting fresh water isn’t just a matter of drilling a well.) But Ting personally paid $9,800 to buy a residential meter. She then secured developers’ credits to pay the difference needed for a water meter large enough for the property, which Rodgers estimates saved the budding organization $50,000.
In 2010, Ting and her son built a barn and community center on the donated land by adjoining two shipping containers. Then the La’akea “lifesharing community” was born, becoming officially licensed to offer a day program under the Medicaid waiver program. The working organic farm, which includes an orchard and chicken coop, provides people with disabilities the chance to learn a wide variety of agricultural skills. The facility also has a country store, which sells produce and homemade dog biscuits.
In addition to farming, La’akea clients learn job skills onsite such as marketing, retail, food prep, and hospitality. La’akea also offers employment support to those working in the surrounding community. Fitness, music, and art classes are also available. Rodgers, now executive director of La’akea, says the variety of options helps them serve everyone according to their desires and abilities. “Each person has an individual destiny,” she says. “It’s really about their own self-determination. How do we create a meaningful day that’s healthy and helps them feel like they matter?”
Comfortable With the Ask
After six lobbying trips to the state capital, Ting convinced lawmakers to put forward a $400,000 grant to fund La’akea’s expansion into housing in 2012. Around this time, Fannie Mae put a foreclosed home on the market right across the street from the farm. Ting jumped on the opportunity, sending an eight-page letter to the agency to explain why an offer from La’akea should be considered. “I told them, ‘You can have my commission [as the buyer’s agent for La’akea]. But this is all we can afford,’” Ting says. Even though La’akea’s offer was almost $60,000 less than another one that had been submitted, the organization won the bidding war using the $400,000 grant, plus $5,000 Ting paid out of her own pocket. Ting convinced her contractor friends to help renovate the house—which had zoning violations and a ficus tree growing out of one of the bathrooms—at a lower cost; it opened as a licensed group home in 2014.
Rodgers credits Ting for not only sourcing contacts she built over decades in the real estate business but also having the tenacity and deal-making abilities to transform the idea of La’akea into reality. “Donna opened every single door, and none of this ever would have happened without her,” Rodgers says. “She definitely commands the room, but she’s extremely humble and easy to work with.”
Whenever La’akea needs something, Ting always follows a specific strategy when asking potential donors for help. “I tell them the story, and I tell them that we need them. And I don’t think anyone’s turned me down,” she says. Her kids tease her for having “no shame,” but Ting has zero qualms about using her negotiation skills for the organization’s benefit. “We need help. So I work with people, and I always try and make it a win-win.”
Greg Chou describes Paia as a quiet, trendy town on Maui’s north shore, home to surfers, celebrities, and construction workers. Still, there’s an undeniable excitement blowing in the wind at La’akea. “It started out as just a tiny shed,” he says. “But there’s always a lot of energy there.”
About five years ago, Chou’s son, Christian, who has autism, was in bad shape. He had exited the educational system, and his medication regimen and opportunities to engage with others dropped off dramatically. His father saw an immediate impact.
“He had this humongous tailspin,” Chou says, recalling his son refusing to participate in conversation, not sleeping, and landing in the ER multiple times for psychological issues. A doctor specializing in autism advised Chou to improve Christian’s access to activities and mood management first, adding in opportunities to boost his self-esteem when possible. Chou says La’akea’s approach helped his son become more grounded and have better control over his emotions. “It was very much a big part of his comeback.”
Chou says La’akea also helped Christian with his self-esteem. Rodgers helped Christian apply for a spot to perform at the annual Weinberg Concert of Extraordinary Abilities—a sort of “America’s Got Talent” for Hawaiians with disabilities. Christian practiced for months with his piano teacher so that he could play “Für Elise” in front of television cameras and an audience that included the first lady of Hawaii. Although he didn’t win, Chou says, Christian did bring home a $10,000 donation for La’akea and a $1,000 prize for himself.
“As a parent, you just want your kids to pursue their dreams, and hopefully he’s in the place where he can have the biggest amount of dreams and the best chance of achieving them,” says Chou.
A Sustainable Future
La’akea is building a commercial kitchen, which is to be constructed from shipping containers like the barn was back in 2010. The organization is also looking to add more affordable housing; the current plan includes creating living space for 48 people in a variety of dwelling sizes onsite, and Ting hopes that creative reuse can also be part of the plan. Shipping container disposal is an acute problem in island communities that depend on overseas imports. “I certainly don’t want it going in a landfill,” she says. “We want to build more housing, and we need to be innovative.” La’akea also won a $25,000 photovoltaic solar panel system in a contest between 14 other nonprofits. “We save $1,000 a month in electric bills, and that goes to programs,” Ting says.
Though Ting recently handed off her position as board president in order to spend more time with her 98-year-old mother, she also sees herself as a resource for La’akea’s clients. “People with special needs don’t have a voice. I’m a big mouth, and I’m going to be their voice,” she says. “We are our brother’s keeper, and what happens to our neighbors matters to us.”
Contact Ting at firstname.lastname@example.org and learn more at laaakea.org.