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Christina O’Connor

Flying First Class

(seated, from left) Mikala Minn (Mahele Farm manager), Aileen Tamura (Hawaii Youth Program for Excellence manager and medical student) and Julianne King (Hawaii Autism Foundation founder and board president), GIFT board members Dustin Sellers and Noel Pietsch Shaw Nathalie Walker photo. nwalker@midweek.com

(seated, from left) Mikala Minn (Mahele Farm manager), Aileen Tamura (Hawaii Youth Program for Excellence manager and medical student) and Julianne King (Hawaii Autism Foundation founder and board president), GIFT board members Dustin Sellers and Noel Pietsch Shaw
Nathalie Walker photo. nwalker@midweek.com

The GIFT Foundation of Hawaii has awarded $1.3 million to various local charitable organizations to date. This year’s annual fundraising party Oct. 26 will help three up-and-coming programs get off the ground

Meeting each other for the first time, one representative from each of this year’s three GIFT (Giving Inspiration For Tomorrow) Foundation of Hawaii’s beneficiary organizations gather in a lush waiting room offsite from an airport hangar. They’re there for a meeting with GIFT Foundation board members to have their photo taken as newly minted members of the growing list of GIFT beneficiaries.

As the group walks over to the hangar, there is talk about the grandeur of the situation: “Who organized all of this?” and the more pressing, “How did we get access to Jay Shidler’s plane?”

The answer to these questions, in short, is GIFT Foundation. Bringing together resources, talents, energy and, in this case, social capital, GIFT Foundation has a knack for pulling off the seemingly impossible. And this airport hangar scenario is a microcosmic example of what it does on a larger scale.

GIFT Foundation of Hawaii is a volunteer nonprofit that supports local charitable organizations while encouraging young adults to get involved in philanthropic giving. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, GIFT Foundation selects various nonprofits or projects as beneficiaries of its annual fundraising party – which has garnered a reputation for being one of the best parties in town. To date, GIFT has donated more than $1.3 million to beneficiaries that include Hospice Hawaii, Boys & Girls Club, Kanu Hawaii and North Shore Community Land Trust.

“(GIFT) is designed to get people giving back sooner, and to realize that you don’t have to wait until you’ve made your money to give back,” GIFT board member and this year’s event co-chairman Dustin Sellers says. For people who are just starting their careers, he adds, they can instead donate their skills and time – like many young members of the GIFT board do.

GIFT board member and event co-chairwoman Noel Pietsch Shaw maintains that while the party itself is unparalleled, it’s the idea of helping out the beneficiaries that really draws the crowd.

Dustin Sellers as captain and Noël Pietsch Shaw as flight attendant Nathalie Walker photo. nwalker@midweek.com

Dustin Sellers as captain and Noël Pietsch Shaw as flight attendant
Nathalie Walker photo. nwalker@midweek.com

“I think that the board is really vetting out these nonprofits and making sure that we are really giving it to the people who need these funds,” Pietsch Shaw says. “And then they are going to take it and do so much more with it.”

This year’s fundraiser, “GIFT Airways – Fly High With Us,” takes place Oct. 26 at The Modern Honolulu and will contribute to a total of $250,000 to help the three beneficiaries – Hawaii Autism Foundation, Hawaii Homeless Outreach and Medical Education’s Hawaii Youth Program for Excellence, and Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike’s Ma-hele Farm Project – take flight.

“We are excited about the beneficiaries this year,” Pietsch Shaw says. “They are somewhat newer organizations that a lot of people haven’t heard of, but they have got great missions that Hawaii really needs.”

“Each is very timely as it relates to the activities that are going on and the focus of our culture and the needs of our society locally,” Sellers adds.

Hawaii Autism Foundation

One day in 2003, after months of testing, Don and Ju-lianne King’s 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. As they left the doctor’s office that day, the doctor said that there was nothing else he could do and advised the couple to simply “fall back on good parenting.”

“We walked out the door, and we were just overwhelmed with the feeling of, ‘oh my gosh, we are in this alone – we have to do this ourselves,’” Ju-lianne King recalls.

But the Kings were de termined to find answers and help for their son, and they embarked on a years-long series of visits around the country to meet with some of the most highly renowned specialists in the field. After gathering knowledge on research, interventions and treatment, and related medical conditions, the couple started a support group in their living room to connect with parents facing similar struggles. But with many facilities located on the Mainland, a lot of families could not afford to pursue treatments.

“All of these other families who were becoming our friends, they didn’t have the same opportunities,” King says. The couple decided that they would bring in physicians to talk with the group in order to help others learn about possible treatments.

Soon they launched Hawaii Autism Foundation, which hosts specialists and grants scholarships to families to pay for treatments. Since 2009, the foundation has connected more than 200 families with specialists and awarded scholarships to more than 50 children. The parent support group that began in the Kings’ living room is now a local chapter of Talk About Curing Autism, which the Hawaii Autism Foundation supports financially.

“We really believe that with one in 88 children diagnosed with autism, we are in a critical state, and early intervention could make all the difference,” says King, who is the foundation’s board president. “We don’t want any children, no matter what their financial background is, to not have access to treatments.”

The funds that Hawaii Autism Foundation receives from GIFT will go toward providing more scholarships.

King says early intervention and treatment are key. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, early interventions such as behavioral therapy have been shown to improve cognitive and language problems in young children diagnosed with autism.

“We are hoping to give as many kids as possible in Hawaii the opportunity to access autism treatments,” King says.

Through her work, King also hopes that she can help families whose children are newly diagnosed and give them the guidance that her family didn’t have at first.

“It is like you are going through a maze at the beginning – it feels like you are walking through a maze and you just need some kind of signal,” King says. “What the foundation wants to let people know is don’t give up hope. Autism can be treatable in some situations, and don’t give up hope.”

Hawaii Homeless Outreach and Medical Education’s Hawaii Youth Program for Excellence

One weekend a month, second-year medical student Aileen Tamura and a few of her peers gather about a dozen teens who are staying at three different homeless shelters around the island. The med students lead an open discussion with the kids on school, career planning, drugs and alcohol, or any problems that they may have. Afterward, the whole group goes on a fun excursion to the water park, the movies, the beach or on a hike.

“(Homeless teens) are dealing with a lot of added stress,” Tamura says. “So we just try to be role models and educate them about things that pertain to them.”

This mentorship – Hawaii Youth Program for Excellence (H.Y.P.E.) is part of Hawaii Homeless Outreach and Medical Education (H.O.M.E.) Project, which works to provide the homeless population with access to quality health care while educating students on related medical needs.

H.O.M.E. was created in 2005 by John A. Burns School of Medicine professor Dr. Jill Omori as a way to increase care and homeless care education in the medical school.

“I decided that the best way for students to learn about homeless care was to actually do it,” Omori says. Omori opened a clinic at a homeless shelter in Kakaako, followed by clinics at shelters in Wa-ianae and Barbers Point.

Working in the shelters, Omori noticed that there was a need to address specifically the well-being of homeless teens.

“Sometimes the teens would come (to the clinic) and we would notice that they didn’t have a lot of people they could talk to about problems, or if they had specific questions about sexual health or issues like bullying,” Omori explains. “We just thought it would be nice to have them have a way to talk to people in a safe environment.”

In addition to excursions and informational sessions, H.Y.P.E. also coordinates school supply drives and holiday parties for the teens.

“It’s really about the youths,” Tamura says. “The thing that is so heartwarming is that they are so thankful … And they are so happy to see you the next time around.”

The funds from GIFT will support transportation and other excursion costs for H.Y.P.E.

Providing that kind of support can help the kids in a myriad of ways. Omori recalls a boy with whom the group was working last year – a high school senior struggling to graduate. The students started working closely with him, and he opened up about some of the issues he had been having in school. One of the main issues was simply that he didn’t have access to a computer to complete a course. So the students arranged for him to visit the medical school to use the computers there.

In the end, he was able to graduate.

“We helped him see that he could graduate – and see the benefits it,” Omori says. “The relationship that we built with him was really gratifying.”

Mahele Farm Project

Every Wednesday and Sunday, farm manager Mikala Minn opens Mahele Farm early and volunteers come to the site in Hana, Maui, to be farmers for the day. They start with harvesting the ripe produce in the garden. Then, Minn helps volunteers start various projects, whether it’s turning the soil, composting and fertilizing a bed, or weeding. As lunchtime approaches, a chef uses what they have gathered to prepare a fresh meal for all of the volunteers. In the afternoon, the group returns to its projects and plants new seeds to ensure there is food for next time.

Kuawela Aiona harvests arugula at Mahele Farm. Photo courtesy of the farm

Kuawela Aiona harvests arugula at Mahele Farm.
Photo courtesy of the farm

“‘Mahele’ in Hawaiian means ‘to distribute or share,’” Minn says. “The idea is that you share in the work, and then we share in the bounty.”

Mahele Farm is a project of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike (in working, one learns), a hands-on construction program for at-risk youths designed to teach students practical skills while creating opportunities for them.

Mahele, which opened three years ago, is an extension of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike in an agricultural setting. Located on three acres of a retired macadamia nut orchard, the farm rests in the middle of a flood plain, making the soil incredibly fertile.

“Anything you put in the ground just grows,” says Minn, who was involved with Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike when he was in high school. Right now, the farm is full of vegetables, fruits, a citrus orchard and livestock.

Continuing Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike’s partnership with Hana High and Elementary School, Ma-hele project hosts educational field trips at the farm. Minn incorporates the students’ classroom curriculum into their work on the farm, teaching a math class about dimensions or creating leaf presses with an art class – all while emphasizing the idea of food security.

“The most important thing for me was for them to see the food come out of the ground and into their mouths directly,” he says.

The fresh-from-the-garden food that students and volunteers experience at Mahele is in stark contrast to what Minn says is the norm for most of Hana: “You go into a family home in Hana on a Wednesday night, and there is no salad on the table, there is nothing green, there is nothing fresh, really.”

But Minn sees the need for food security as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“I see an opportunity, especially with the land in Hana, to put really good ag land to good ag use,” Minn says. “Instead of throwing up a condo or something, we are farming and we are feeding people food – fresh food.”

The funds from the GIFT Foundation will go toward the purchase of a farm tractor and other infrastructure needs, which Minn explains will work the land more efficiently and in turn help to increase the amount of food the farm can grow – and subsequently the number of people it can feed.

“We are just trying to make these kinds of foods available to the community at large,” Minn says. “It is an opportunity for us to help (the kids) be progressive thinkers, and I just wholeheartedly believe that if we take care of them, then the future takes care of itself.”

“GIFT Airways – Fly High With Us” starts at 8 p.m., and 7 p.m. for VIP. For more information on GIFT Foundation of Hawaii, visit giftfoundationofhawaii.org. To purchase tickets for the event and help these three nonprofits get off the ground, email gift@ gift-hawaii.org or call Melissa at 457-0880.

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