A Legacy of Love

Loretta Luke Yajima (right) has been the driving force behind the newly expanded Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center for two decades, and now her daughter Liane Usher is working there as director so Isle children such as daughter Chloe can have a place to play and learn

Wednesday - January 07, 2009

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Loretta Luke Yajima, president of the board of directors for the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako, has dedicated the last two decades of her life to building and maintaining a place where families can learn and grow together through play.

She’s there 24/7, or at least that’s what it seems like, and she doesn’t get paid. It’s truly been a labor of love.

Surrounded by 30 acres of waterfront park, the private, nonprofit Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center is a world-class educational facility that features 38,000 square-feet of the art, hands-on interactive exhibits.

Barack Obama, who visited the Children’s Discovery Center in 2005 with his daughters, poses with Liane Usher and Loretta Luke Yajima

Each year about 100,000 kids and adults visit the center, which is undergoing an expansion, including the addition of a kid’s cafe and a new exhibit gallery.

Construction started last May and is scheduled to be finished this month - the problem is another $1.5 million is needed before it can open.

“We have the shell of the space,” explains Yajima, “but we need furniture, such as tables and chairs for the cafe.

“Before we came to Kakaako, there was this vision to have this whole place developed for eating, shopping and even residences down at the waterfront. We’ve been here for 10 years, and there really hasn’t been much development, so we as a board said we can’t have a children’s museum and have hundreds of families here every day and no place to eat.

Loretta Luke Yajima with granddaughter Chloe Usher and daughter Liane Usher at the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center

“Even though we went out to bid, we knew that it would be a stretch for us because we needed to raise so much money (about $5.4 million). But we also realized that if we didn’t do this now, the likelihood of us ever having an expansion would be very slim.”

Yajima’s daughter Liane Usher, who serves as the center’s director of exhibits and programs and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the center, is working on the concepts for the new exhibit. Once funds are available, they will be able to fabricate them. She hopes to have the new, much-needed gallery open by this summer.

“Half of the space will be for early childhood (ages 3 and under), so that’s really exciting,” says Usher. “And the other half of the space will be a water-play exhibit where they can learn science and math - for example, scooping, pouring, measuring and how to build dams.”

The Hawaii children’s discovery center first opened in December 1989 as a storefront in Dole Cannery. It was known as the Hawaii Children’s Museum of Art, Culture, Science and Technology, but it quickly outgrew its donated 5,000-square-foot space and closed after four years.

In 1998, it reopened at the site of the old Kewalo incinerator under a 40-year lease with the state.

Renamed the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, the new building was a dream come true for not just Yajima, but many others.

“People think I’m the founder of the children’s museum here, but I’m not,” says Yajima, whose role now is fundraising and strategic vision. “There were really dozens, certainly, if not hundreds, who really wanted to start a children’s museum. I was just very fortunate enough to come on board at that stage of development.”

Also instrumental in the early stages, former Hawaii first lady Lynne Waihee, Trudy Schandler Wong and Leilehua Omphroy.

Malana Neuhauser, 4, plays doctor with sister Arianna

In 1987, Yajima retired from her job as administrative director at the highly respected Hanahauoli School in Makiki and started her full-time journey of building a children’s museum in Hawaii.

“I had three little children at that time, and I remember having to fundraise and go into some of these CEOs’offices with the children in tow,” Yajima recalls. “I remember going into John Bellinger’s office at First Hawaiian Bank, and I told him about what we were planning and I’ll never forget this: He was sitting at this big desk in this chair-man/CEO office and he opened

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