Kennett Makaiwi wants his community to stay clean.
He doesn’t ask for anything in return, and he isn’t paid by the city of Santa Rosa, where he volunteers his landscaping skills to keep Julliard Park looking beautiful.
The 66-year-old veteran hasn’t had the easiest life. He was born in San Francisco in 1952 before moving to Hawai’i with his parents. Makaiwi’s father worked as a merchant mariner and was away from home for long periods of time. When they returned to the Bay Area in 1962, Makaiwi said, trouble followed.
Conflict in school and at home ended in Makaiwi joining the Army when he was 17. He served in Vietnam, and though his military career wasn’t exemplary, he says it taught him “that I can do anything. I really can.”
Makaiwi’s departure from the Army was followed by years of drug abuse as he dealt with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and homelessness, even landing behind bars for a period.
On three separate occasions, he tried to take his own life.
“I had to learn things the hard way,” he told the Press Democrat. “I was a bad, bad boy — even though I was a good person.”
Living across the street from Julliard Park, Makaiwi often walked along the paved paths that ran through it. Most every day, he noticed the grass that grew over those paths, until one day, he looked beneath.
Beautiful red bricks lined the walkway, and perhaps no one would ever know, given the prolific overgrowth. No one but Makaiwi, that is.
“I thought,” Makaiwi said, “‘Oh my goodness, don’t tell me the whole thing is like that.'”
With help from his girlfriend, who bought him a shovel, Makaiwi got to work. For three months, he scraped the bricks clean, and cut the grass back. Meanwhile, city workers gladly took the trimmings away.
All the while, Makaiwi got to know his community, and the people and pets who frequent the park.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I know more dogs than I do people.”
Makaiwi attends counseling services provided by Veterans Affairs, but he says keeping the park clean provides just as much therapy.
“I’m very grateful to the VA,” he said. “I work a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there. It’s a way for me to get out of my place. If something is bothering me, I go out and work.
“It’s a godsend, actually.”
The residents of Santa Rosa agree.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.