How Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network is Putting Keiki First

Images courtesy of Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network

Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network is building an army of advocates in the fight for a better future for Hawai’i’s keiki.

With the mantra, “But first, nā keiki,” Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network (HCAN) is working to improve the well-being of Hawai‘i’s youth by taking a hard look at the persistent social conditions that threaten their success. The nonprofit’s growing network of parents and community partners seek to diminish poverty, health disparities, lack of education, and other effects of systemic oppression that have traditionally hit Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander children the hardest.

Founded in 1996, HCAN is Hawai‘i’s only 501(c)3 nonprofit advocating solely for local children—a purpose that has become increasingly vital as the state continues to underperform in national child-related metrics.

In the fall of 2020, Aloha United Way reported that one in seven local households with children don’t have enough food to eat, and one in four are afraid they won’t be able to make their next housing payment. In the recently released 2021 Kids Count Data Book, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that studies how families across the nation are faring, the economic well-being of Hawai‘i’s keiki ranks 44th, falling 14 spots over the course of a year.

For Deborah Zysman, HCAN’s Executive Director, leveling the playing field for underserved youth means standing up for equity in addition to equality.

“It’s not enough to treat all children equally,” she says. “To right our societal injustices — and truly give every child an equal opportunity for success — we have to target our public resources toward children who are systemically oppressed and disadvantaged from the moment they’re born.”

To that end, HCAN projects are designed around researching and tracking disparities, advocating for solutions, and supporting people to be changemakers for their community.

One of the organization’s most vital causes is championing high-quality early learning in Hawaiʻi, where parents pay an average of $14,000 a year for center-based infant care. In 2020, HCAN helped pass a bill that broadens eligibility for the Preschool Open Doors Program and creates a state goal of giving all 3- and 4-year-olds access to pre-Kindergarten by the year 2032. More recently, teams have rallied in support of the federal efforts to make early learning programs affordable or even free—a potential game-changer for families.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, HCAN’s swift ability to mobilize citizens fostered stability in a time of upheaval. In partnership with the Hawaiʻi Working Families Coalition, volunteers launched a campaign asking policymakers to dedicate a portion of the CARES Act coronavirus relief funds to help vulnerable families. Thanks in part to a socially distanced capitol rally, digital action alerts, widespread media coverage, and other campaign efforts, the Hawai‘i State Legislature allocated $15 million to help childcare centers safely reopen and remain operational.

In mid-2020, HCAN created the COVID-19 Data Dashboard and Resource Map, a valuable mobile-friendly website that kept families informed about food, financial assistance, childcare, and emergency legislation for paid leave benefits.

Now more than ever, parent power is critical to finally seeing the change we want to see.

Deborah Zyman, HCAN Executive Director

Today, the HCAN website features a condensed version of the resource map that provides visitors with information on vaccination and testing sites, vaccination locations for children, and updates on pandemic- related financial aid.

Website visitors can also check the Household Pulse Survey Dashboard, which uses U.S. Census Bureau data to share statistics on income loss, food sufficiency, health care, and childcare disruptions, spreading awareness on the myriad of ways that the pandemic is affecting local households.

With a gradual return to normalcy in Hawai‘i on the horizon, HCAN staff and volunteers are taking time to celebrate the progress of the last two years.

Their annual Champions for Children fundraiser set for April recognizes community leaders and superhero supporters who have gone above and beyond to promote keiki wellness. Also coming up in 2022, HCAN will host a series of new Keiki Talks, where researchers present the latest insights on children’s issues. Past topics of intrigue include “The Pandemic and Young Minds” and “Helping Your Kids Heal from Racism.”

As Zysman hunts for new ways to transform the lives of Hawaiʻi’s children, she hopes more parents, grandparents, and caregivers will use the tools of democracy to “dream bigger and do better for families.”

To help demystify the civic process, HCAN sends out action-alerts around critical family-focused legislation, shares tips on how to submit testimony, and offers a free civic engagement program called the Parent Leadership Training Institute.

“It’s ok to feel frustrated or disenfranchised with the broken system,” says Zysman. “Now more than ever, parent power is critical to finally seeing the change we want to see, and creating the Hawaiʻi our children deserve.”

Learn more about the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network at

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