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Susan Kang Sunderland

Billy Richards – Navigating A Better Future for Hawaiian Keiki

Billy Richards, a member of the original Hokulea crew and several subsequent voyages, is now working to improve the quality of life for Hawaii children through Partners In Development

E kaupe aku no i ka hoe a ko mai (Put forward the paddle and draw it back. Go on with the task that is started and finish it.) -Hawaiian proverb

Is life a journey or a destination? For Billy Richards, it’s a fascinating journey that takes him to the depths of the ocean, to exotic ports of call guided by the stars and to native Hawaiian communities that touch the human spirit.

Yet all the while he is anchored by cultural values that define “home” for him. It is both destination and destiny.

How does a Renaissance man balance traditional and contemporary ways?

To find out, we make our way to a second floor office in Nuuanu, where Richards works as director of communications for Partners In Development Foundation (PID).

Richards, 65, a Kailua resident, is a handsome islander with silver hair, mustache and Van Dyke beard that contrast strikingly with the black shirt he is wearing. His youthful appearance belies the depth of character, maturity and infinite wisdom he imparts.

He’s an old soul of sorts with a quiet sophistication that friends say makes him ha’aha’a (humble).

But today we hope to draw out his credentials and achievements that merit recognition. He would be the first to say, “It’s not about me.” We’ll see about that.

Richards has been involved with Hawaii’s voyaging community since 1975 and has served aboard canoes Hokulea, Hawaiiloa, Makalii and Hokualakai. He is president of the Friends of Hokulea and Hawaiiloa, a nonprofit that perpetuates ancient Hawaiian canoe practices by building and restoring vessels.

He is chairman of Ohana Waa, a canoe hui that pools resources and manpower to pursue voyaging ventures.

“I’ve always loved the ocean,” Richards says. “I was inspired as a youngster by stories of mythological heroes such as Vikings and Greek gods. My dad (William K. Richards Sr.) reminded me that Hawaii has its own legendary heroes.”

Richards reaches for a book on his desk.

“This was on my dad’s headboard,” he says of a volume titled Vikings of Sunrise by Sir Peter Buck. “It is about the great migration of Polynesians and the tales regarding the creation of man and the islands.

“I read it and thought to myself, ‘One day I’m going to sail to Tahiti,’” he recalls.

“My mother (hula teacher Bella Richards) visited Tahiti often on dance missions and invited me along, but I wanted to approach the island from the sea,” says the voyager at heart.

That is not surprising, given his European-Hawaiian ethnicity that suggests an adventuresome and exploratory nature.

e shares this spirit with wife Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, senior manager of government and community relations at Hawaiian Airlines. A former Miss Hawaii, this beautiful hula dancer who performs weekly at the Halekulani, met her husband at an induction ceremony for lua (Hawaiian martial arts) practitioners. The Richards have a 22-year-old daughter, Mahina, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Sarah Lawrence College.

The exploration of the ocean and its pathways to the world led Richards to marine management jobs in the public and private sectors. He spent two decades at Oceanic Institute, where he served in program development, research, Hawaiian fishpond revitalization and administration of Hawaii Island’s Keahuolu facility.

More recently he was vice president and general manager of Hawaii High Health Seafood Corporation, the sales and marketing subsidiary of a large land-based aquaculture operation located on Kauai.

He also has been an underwater surveyor, doing biological surveys for environmental impact studies of projects such as Kahoolawe and the reef runway.

But his most socially sensitive link to his cultural roots and traditions might be the role he presently holds at the nonprofit organization known as Partners in Development (PID), an Aloha United Way agency.

Don’t be scared off by the word “development.” This has nothing to do with building high-rise condos and mega malls, although “building blocks” in personal growth and a social sense would be a logical association.

The foundation was founded in 1997 by Jan E. Hanohano Dill, grandson of a Hawaiian healer who wants to help native Hawaiian families and communities deal with life challenges.

The Kamehameha Schools graduate and Fulbright Fellow utilized his skills as an educator, political scientist, lawyer, marine scientist and diplomat to develop PID Foundation, where Richards directs communications and “putting us on the map.”

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