Creating Family Through Food

Deborah & Happy removed lau lau from the steamer at the Hawaiian-themed "Cooking With Friends" session at Fernhurst. 

Deborah & Happy removed lau lau from the steamer at the Hawaiian-themed "Cooking With Friends" session at Fernhurst. 

With Hawaiian music blaring in the background and chicken long rice boiling on the stove, Deborah felt like she was home. As the youngest out of 10 siblings, she grew up in a busy kitchen watching and helping her mother cook traditional Filipino and Hawaiian food. On Saturday, Deborah was able to share that knowledge with her fellow residents at Fernhurst through the pilot program “Cooking with Friends”.

This monthly cooking session has brought women from work furlough and transitional housing together by sharing and connecting through food. The program has even attracted a few work furlough graduates, who helped decorate tables on Saturday with flowers and leaves picked from Fernhurst’s community garden.

“The thing I like most about ‘Cooking with Friends’ is getting everyone together, working together as a team and socializing,” said Deborah, who is a resident of our Homebase transitional housing program at Fernhurst. Deborah and Happy, a fellow Homebase resident, have been the backbone of this program since the first session in January.

“Food brings everybody together,” Happy said. “We all share and sharing is a big thing. It’s good for everybody.”

“Cooking with Friends” emerged through the SEEDS Initiative, a research-based nutrition and wellness education program that promotes social connectivity, education, exercise, diet, and sleep. The first session kicked off in January with a focus on Japanese food, led by Tokyo native and YWCA O‘ahu CEO, Noriko Namiki. She spoke about growing up in Japan and discussed the historic background and cultural significance of musubis and other Japanese dishes.

Since then, residents and staff have hosted sessions on Filipino, Korean, and Hawaiian cuisine. In addition to the cultural learning and cooking skills residents gain, Fernhurst Program Coordinator, Aunty Mahealani, said that “the real gems that come out of this program are the sharing of stories”.

“These kinds of gatherings are kind of like eating at home,” she said. “Everybody eats on the same kitchen table and we get to learn about each other a little bit deeper on a cultural basis. This program is really nice because it really brought Homebase and work furlough together.”

Currently, Aunty Mahealani picks up all the ingredients and coordinates the monthly cuisine for “Cooking with Friends”, but YWCA O‘ahu hopes to find a sponsor for this pilot program. Each session costs approximately $250 plus staff coordination. Although it may seem like just a cooking lesson, it means so much more to these women transitioning out of incarceration into the community.

“There’s something comforting about everyone being in the kitchen and cooking good food. Just think about a time where you cooked with your aunt, mom, or a friend. This is the essence and community that’s been created by Aunty Mahealani,” said Fernhurst Manager, Talia Cardines.

“Dine With Us” is another new pilot program which launched in February 2017. This project teaches women living at Fernhurst about dining etiquette and provides a safe space to practice dining and networking in a professional setting. Nearly two dozen YWCA supporters attended the inaugural dinner, including First Lady, Dawn Amano-Ige, and 2016 LeaderLuncheon honoree, Donna Tanoue. Guests were also graced with performances from pianist Julia Akatsu Stoyanov, who was visiting from Japan.

Sarah* is a work furlough resident at Fernhurst and wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the event, but she was surprised to find out she was sitting next to the governor’s wife.  

“I was so nervous, I was scared. I was like, ‘How do you talk to a governor’s wife? What’s a proper subject to talk about besides politics?’ But we found common ground on education,” Sarah said. “She was like another mentor helping me stay focused, reminding me of what’s important. It was pretty cool.”

YWCA O‘ahu hopes to host “Dine With Us” twice a year to help women in our economic advancement programs learn and practice dining etiquette and networking, but costs are high. We’re currently seeking corporate sponsors or even restaurant owners who can sponsor and host a session in their eatery.

For more information on how to support “Cooking with Friends” or “Dine With Us” please contact Cecilia Fong, Director of Fund Development, at 695-2620 or

* Name changed for privacy reasons.