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Former inmates help bring new life to Waikiki as Aloha Ambassadors

HONOLULU — Jason Esau uses a pressure washer to remove dirt and grime from the sidewalks of Waikiki, while his team leader, Kyle Hostallero, stops to give directions to two international visitors.

The men are part of the Waikiki Business Improvement District Aloha Ambassador program, which will expand to 24 hours, seven days a week this summer and is projected by year’s end to remove 500,000 pounds of trash and serve more than 350,000 visitors.

It’s hard work, but Esau and Hostallero smile often as they labor to leave Waikiki better than they found it. Their work brings new life to Waikiki and provides them with a second chance, too.

The men are part of the Aloha Ambassadors second-­chance program, which is a partnership between the Waikiki Business Improvement District (WBID) and the Laumaka Work Furlough Center/O‘ahu Community Correctional Center. The program employs low-risk, incarcerated people, and recently released people.

Aloha Ambassadors serve as the hospitality hosts of Waikiki, providing information and assistance to those people whom they encounter on the sidewalks of the Kalakaua Avenue-Kuhio Avenue corridor.

People on the clean team provide cleaning and maintenance services to supplement the city’s efforts. There also are safety ambassadors who provide services to make residents and visitors more secure.

Trevor Abarzua, WBID president and executive director, said the organization has more than 60 Aloha Ambassadors, and 16 of them are in the second-chance program, which has helped augment the expanding program’s needs. That’s up from 10 second-chance employees in 2023.

The Aloha Ambassador program’s current hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., but Abarzua said on July 1 it is slated to begin providing 24/7 safety ambassadors at Kuhio Beach Park, with a homeless and mental health outreach component overnight. The change is contingent on the mayor’s budget passing, he said.

“The idea behind it is having an extra layer of safety presence here in Waikiki. They will be more of an outreach component to the overnight services,” he said.

Robert Lee, WBID director of operations, said the Aloha Ambassadors, especially those in the second-chance program, are proactive.

“They are an example to their peers of what they can do to turn around their lives before they reach that tipping point,” Lee said.

Uplifting outreach

Abarzua said WBID has hired 34 second-chance people since June 2018, and they have a combined employment of 16,675 days with an average of 1.34 years of employment.

“Once they graduate from the work release program with us, some move on to other companies and jobs with the experience they gained as an ambassador,” he said.

However, Abarzua said some have stayed at WBID, where the longest-tenured second-chance employees have been in the program almost six years. He said some second-chance employees have been promoted to manager positions and specialty higher-paid positions like team mechanic, which has helped the program develop a culture of mentorship.

Hostallero manages 25 to 30 workers as a clean-team leader, but also serves as an example to those people from his past whom he sees on Wai­kiki’s sidewalks and streets.

“I don’t always give them money, because I know it will probably go to alcohol or drugs, but I do make the time to hear them out and give them some words of encouragement. I’ll say, ‘Hey, If I can do it, you can do it,’” Hostallero said. “If someone had come up to me before, I would have definitely thought about it and tried to work to do better.”

Hostallero said he enjoys giving back through the second-chance program, which has afforded him another chance at life. Originally from Kaua‘i, he said, “I’ve struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and some mental health issues due to the drugs, which caused me to break some laws — nothing serious, but enough to land me in prison.”

While serving time, he said, he enrolled in the Kashbox intensive treatment program, which helped support his sobriety and encouraged him to mend fences with family, including his now 12-year-old son. The program also helped Hostallero set goals, but until he found the second-chance program, it was hard to meet them.

“Before being released, I had plans at looking at construction or working as a painter. I had great ambition. But once I got out, I was applying at all these places and was getting told no or wasn’t getting called back. There were a lot of roadblocks,” he said. “Once I applied at Block by Block (a WBID contractor), they gave me a chance.”

Hostallero said coming out of prison, “where they do all the thinking for you,” can be challenging. However, the job has given him financial stability and helped him build confidence and interpersonal skills, and he’s tried to spread the positivity.

“I encourage everyone that there are always better options out there than going backwards,” he said. “Having a negative lifestyle, it always comes from within first. If you have a positive outlook on life on the inside, it’s going to reflect on the outside. I encourage everybody to strive for their best and to do what they can.”

Esau said Hostallero has inspired him to work harder, and as a result he was named employee of the quarter.

“Everything Kyle (Hostal­lero) does has inspired me. For example, like as a pressure washer I’d just focus on this, but Kyle does other things while pressure-­washing,” he said. “He helped me to have an open mind and to stay positive. He’s a big part of my success.”

Esau, who ran away from his Waipahu home at 13 and ended up incarcerated due to a series of bad decisions, also serves as a source of inspiration and an example of how gratitude enriches life.

He said that when he was a kid he grew up in a rough place, “hung out with the wrong group of people and got into drugs, drinking, smoking weed, crime and gangs.”

Esau said while working in Waikiki he sometimes sees people he did time with. He said that during those encounters he tries to lead by example.

“I tell these guys straight up, ‘You know where I came from, and I’m living my best life right now,’” he said. “I show my accomplishments off. I got my own place. I just got a PS5 and got me cable this past week. I’m smiling and I’m happy.”

Esau said he was “in street life” so long that his family initially gave up on him, but some have come around.

“My older brother is my biggest support right now, and he encouraged me to apply for this job,” he said. “I struggle with social skills, but he said, ‘Brah, it might be a good opportunity. It might open doors for you.’”

Powerful partnerships

Dave Willard, WBID vice president and deputy executive director, said he has seen the second-chance program open doors over and over again. That’s why he is hopeful that the program’s results will inspire other Waikiki businesses to form similar partnerships, which is a necessary step in the district’s multiagency crime reduction program, Safe &Sound Waikiki, which began about 18 months ago.

“Everybody is looking for workers. It’s a tight job market. These guys are reliable and hard workers. They want to excel,” Willard said. “After parole a lot of them stay and have continued to work for us. It’s meaningful for us to see the progress and the growth. It’s powerful.”

Abarzua said a rash of crimes when Waikiki reopened after COVID-19 first prompted the prosecutor’s office to begin working in partnership with the Honolulu Police Department, WBID and other nonprofits and community members to establish Safe &Sound Waikiki.

The crime reduction strategy depends on grassroots input from residents, businesses and community groups regarding crime issues, as well as what community activities and social services are needed.

In the first 18 months of Safe &Sound Waikiki, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said, there have been 3,600 arrests/citations in the area.

Abarzua said as Safe &Sound Waikiki enters its second year, the focus will turn increasingly proactive and rely more on partnerships like the Institute for Human Services homeless outreach program and on second chance, which reduces the probability of recidivism by providing a pathway for rehabilitation.

“What gets lost is that when someone gets rehabilitated, they need somewhere to land. They need to get back into society,” he said.

“We are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of being part of the solution of giving people that second chance at employment and a (sense of community from) the friendships, the co-workers and the mentors. We are trying to be part of that solution by helping to fund the IHS, Safe &Sound Waikiki and within our own culture and our hiring here.”
Source: The Garden Island

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