'It's a godsend': Veteran finds purpose clearing overgrown paths at Calif. park
By CHRIS SMITH | The Press Democrat | Published: May 6, 2019
SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — You couldn't pay most people to do the tedious shovel work Kennett Makaiwi is doing at downtown Santa Rosa's historic Juilliard Park.
Come to think of it, you couldn't pay Makaiwi either.
His park improvement project is a gift to the city. And at the same time, to himself.
"It does me good," he said of his labor in the park.
Makaiwi is a 66-year-old military veteran who speaks of regret for the drug abuse and other behaviors that put him behind bars and on the streets, and who has lived for much of his life with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I had to learn things the hard way," he said. "I was a bad, bad boy — even though I was a good person."
He now lives in a subsidized rental just across Santa Rosa Avenue from Juilliard Park. Early this year he was strolling the park's asphalt walking path and noticed, beneath the grass at one edge, a bit of a brick border.
"I thought," Makaiwi said, "'Oh my goodness, don't tell me the whole thing is like that.'"
He stooped and, here and there, pulled back the grass along the walkway. He found that perfectly nice brick borders line both sides of the path but, who knows how long ago, disappeared under the encroaching lawn.
Though his Vietnam-era military service wasn't entirely positive, Makaiwi credits the U.S. Army with teaching him "that I can do anything. I really can."
He resolved to cut the grass away from the walkway's brick borders all throughout the park.
Makaiwi said his girlfriend bought him a shovel. About three months ago, he began cutting and scraping away grass from the pathway bricks. Appreciative city parks employees haul off the cuttings.
As Makaiwi works, it's obvious that he enjoys being outdoors, the physical activity, the satisfaction of seeing how much better the park paths look with the grass trimmed away from the edges, and the impromptu conversations with park visitors.
"It's funny," he said. "I know more dogs than I do people."
He shared during a work break that he spent many years being angry. Today, thanks in large part to the mental-health support, advocacy and other help he receives from the Veterans Affairs, he's happy.
I'm in a lot of therapy at the VA," he said. Nodding toward the park walkway he's beautifying, he added, "I call this part of my therapy."
The voluntary landscape gardener was born in San Francisco in 1952 and a short time later moved with his parents to Hawaii. He lived there about 10 years, first on Molokai, then on Oahu.
Makaiwi recalls those early years as heavenly. He said his folks moved the family back to San Francisco in 1962 and he pretty soon started getting into trouble.
He was bored at school and that led to conflicts. He said his dad, a native Hawaiian, worked for decades as a merchant mariner and spent long stints away from home.
His own teen years, Makaiwi said, were tough and poor. At 17, he enlisted in the Army.
That year was 1969 and the Vietnam war was on, but he was stationed in Germany. Upon completing his stint, he returned to Northern California, went to work as a laborer, married and started a family in the Middletown area of Lake County.
Makaiwi tells of working his way from landscape labor to concrete and roadway projects. He said he worked with sheet metal before he hired on at Arterial Vascular Engineering in Santa Rosa, a predecessor to Medtronic.
He cites many factors in his hitting the skids. In addition to being bipolar and struggling with post-adolescent PTSD, he said, he dealt with disabling asthma and lost himself for a time to drugs.
Amid the prison time and other misery, Makaiwi came to expect that he would not live past the age of 33. "Three times, I tried to commit suicide," he said.
His life is far better now, and he gives much credit to the advocacy, care and treatment he receives from the Veterans Affairs.
"There are still challenges ahead, but I'm in a better place," he said at Juilliard Park. "I'm very grateful to the VA."
He's happy he noticed the grass-concealed brick borders on the park's pedestrian paths, and that it occurred to him to cut the grass back.
"I work a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there," Makaiwi said. "It's a way for me to get out of my place. If something is bothering me, I go out and work.