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Imua dream is coming true

Imua Family Services to purchase historic Yokouchi Estate to expand its programs

The Yokouchi Family Estate will be the future location of the Imua Discovery Garden and preschool and temporary housing for specialists. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

WAILUKU — Creating a place where keiki can learn and grow in outdoor settings and where families can picnic or garden together has been a longtime vision of Imua Family Services.

It took a big step towards becoming reality Thursday morning when the nonprofit group’s director announced plans to create the Imua Discovery Garden preschool, an open-air classroom and space for children with disabilities to engage, play and interact with nature, at the historic Yokouchi Family Estate in Wailuku.

“Imua Family Services takes great responsibility in becoming the new stewards of this property in a way that will share it with friends and families for years to come, which I believe helps to continue the legacy of this property,” Executive Director Dean Wong said during an outdoor news conference at the Wailuku plantation home. “We talked about what services would enhance Imua’s values, which includes inclusion, compassion, collaboration, connection and empowerment.”

Imua Family Services was established on Maui in 1947 and has become the largest early childhood development and progressive services provider in the state.

The Imua Discovery Garden will be the agency’s second Imua Inclusion Preschool, which will consist of “nature play spaces” on the 6.09-acre property. This includes family picnic areas, sensory gardens, an outdoor amphitheater, interactive walls, activity panels and mud tables — all designed to allow for children with disabilities to play with able-bodied family members and friends.

Imua Family Services Executive Director Dean Wong announces the agency’s intent to purchase the Yokouchi estate Thursday. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

This second preschool will expand Imua’s program services and double the student capacity, Wong said, allowing more children of all levels to have the opportunity to learn at their own pace in an outdoor environment.

Only 43 percent of children in Hawaii are enrolled in preschool school due to the lack of available child care opportunities, early development programs and space, he said.

In addition to the preschool, the estate will serve as a clinical residence for specialized therapists and technicians seeking temporary housing while they work with Imua students.

“We have to be ready to meet the growing needs of this community,” he said.

The Imua Board of Directors and staff created the idea of open-air style classrooms in 2017; six months later the Yokouchi Family Estate became available for the dream and communications began to purchase the property.

The beginning conceptual and design phases for the Imua garden project were launched earlier this week after plans to purchase the property were finalized.

“This sentiment that my dad had made it really emotional and hard to make the family decision to sell it,” said Leslie Ann Yokouchi, Imua board member and daughter of local real estate developer and philanthropist Masaru “Pundy” Yokouchi. “This home represented my dad. This home showed who he was. He loved the arts, the home was filled with art.

“He loved the community and giving back to the community.”

The “Million Dreams” campaign has been launched to raise $5.5 million to purchase the estate and for planned project developments, as well as for restoration and rehabilitation. The capital campaign is structured to accept large gifts and small donations, corporate and business gifts, and to provide naming opportunities.

“There will be a way for anyone to participate in this dream, and these incredible gardens will become a home for Maui children,” Wong said.

The Imua preschool project will be done in phases and no completion date has been established yet. The timeline is dependent on the fundraiser.

The plantation home’s property will be revitalized “for teaching, parent coaching and for therapy sessions where children can thrive and learn in outdoor settings and have more variety to their therapeutic settings,” Wong said.

“I can’t believe this day is here.”

The ultimate goal is for Imua to expand its services and organize educational classes focused on sustainable farming, arts and culture, nutrition, communication and overall health and well being.

Wong said that outdoor learning and connecting children to nature can promote cognitive function, physical activity, healthy nutrition, social skills, self-discipline and academic performance, as well as reduce stress and symptoms of conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder.

This project addresses some immediate needs identified during the strategic planning process including transitional and affordable housing for pediatric professionals recruited from the Mainland, a second Imua inclusion preschool, and outdoor naturalistic learning environments, he said.

“As an organization that is 73 years old, we think about what this program will be at the centennial anniversary of the organization, because it’s clear to me that this organization will be here in a 100 years,” Wong said. “But the decisions that we make today are helping us to steer the ship in the direction of what we will become, who we will be serving at that time.”

The Wailuku property is accessible to the community and conveniently located near the planned clinical residence, the Wailuku Public Library and Hale Ho’ike’ike at the Bailey House museum.

In the late 1800s, portions of the property were utilized by the Bailey and Son’s Sugar Plantation before Wailuku Sugar Co. bought it. A waterwheel still sits on the estate below the home, as well as the water canal that powered the mill during its years of operation.

Before Pundy Yokouchi bought the house and property in 1991 and raised his family there, the property was the former Wailuku Sugar Co. manager’s residence.

“My dad, he loved this home,” said Leslie Ann Yokouchi. “He also had this deep love for education, and felt that education was the one way a child can open up his heart and mind to become better citizens.”

Her dad had an eye on the property from his days as a child attending Wailuku Elementary School. He told himself on his walk to school that he would own the estate one day.

“Pundy” Yokouchi died 14 years ago.

“Having an organization like Imua, who helps children get a better start in life, and Dean, who will probably bring back the life of this home, what better match could you have,” Leslie Ann Yokouchi said.

For more information about the Imua Discovery Garden and how to donate, go to imuagarden.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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