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GIFT In Wünderland

The GIFT Foundation is known as a group of young professionals dedicated to philanthropy — and for throwing one of the best parties in Hawaii. This year’s soiree, themed ‘Wünderland: Twisted Toon Town Where Ani-Mayhem Reigns,’ happens Oct. 24. GIFT recipients in 2014 include Kupu, Honolulu Zoo Society and Kids Hurt Too

After being separated from his abusive father, one young boy was feeling so constantly anxious that he Velcro-ed himself to his mother’s side, not wanting to be alone for a second. Through attending regular support groups with Kids Hurt Too Hawaii — where he got to talk and play with other kids going through similar experiences — he was able to process his feelings and learned to channel his anxiety in other ways.

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Jon Bryan and Emily Kawashima co-chair this year’s GIFT Foundation event. Photo by Nathalie Walker

Meanwhile, a high school dropout bounced from job to job, not sure where his life was heading and even more unsure of what he could contribute. Through working with an experiential learning program at Kupu Hawaii, he discovered his passion for natural medicine. After graduating from the program, he became a leader within the organization and recently finished his first semester at Leeward Community College.

At one local school, a Honolulu Zoological Society instructor visited a group of young students to talk about how people’s consumption of palm oil — which is found in a number of daily-use products — has been contributing to the destruction of orangutans’ habitats. Afterward, many of the keiki went home and told their parents to stay away from items with palm oil so they can help save these animals.

Transformations such as these happen all the time at these three local nonprofits. And as this year’s beneficiaries of the The GIFT (Giving Inspiration for Tomorrow) Foundation of Hawaii, Kids Hurt Too Hawaii, Kupu Hawaii and Honolulu Zoological Society each will be able to expand their services, reaching more youths and transforming more lives.

A collective of young professionals, GIFT Foundation has been raising money for nonprofits throughout the state since 2003. GIFT’s goals are twofold: to raise funds and awareness for local charitable organizations, while also encouraging young adults to get involved in philanthropic giving.

Serious as they are about philanthropy, GIFT members might be even more serious about having fun. They raise money through an annual fundraiser party that has garnered something of a reputation over the years.

“It’s a neat way to help nonprofits get recognition,” explains Emily Kawashima, an attorney and GIFT board member who is co-chairing this year’s event alongside Jon Bryan.

“We’ve come up with a different model to raise money, and people really have a good time,” says Bryan, who owns marketing firm JB Brands. “We are excited that based on our pre-sale … our people are going to surpass $2 million that we have given to charities here in Hawaii.”

To help support Kids Hurt Too, Kupu and Honolulu Zoological Society, GIFT invites you to join them on a trip down the rabbit hole for this year’s event, Wünderland: Twisted Toon Town Where Ani-Mayhem Reigns, from 8 p.m. (7 p.m. for VIP) to midnight Oct. 24 at The Republik. Think of this year’s theme as a gathering place where animated characters go to cut loose.

These organizations were selected from what Bryan and Kawashima say was a particularly impressive batch of 55 applicants.

“I just give so much credit to these guys,” Kawashima says. “They really give blood, sweat and tears to their causes.”

Kids Hurt Too Hawaii

Executive director Cynthia White often says that “grieving can be fun.” It might seem like a morbid aphorism, but its validity shines through during Kids Hurt Too’s regular peer support group meetings. There you can find children making jewelry, playing house and running around a jungle gym, while teens chat or play foosball and ping-pong.

All of the kids who come to the Kukui Street center to play, though, are experiencing some type of loss of their parents. They either are in foster care, are separated from a parent because of divorce, incarceration or abandonment, or have a parent who has passed away. In addition to offering therapeutic play, it also offers a safe space for children to talk about what they’re going through.

“Play is empowering,” White says. “It is transforming their grief, their trauma, into something they can manage, something they can control.”

White has a hard-earned expertise in childhood grief and trauma. When she was 6, her father threatened to kill her mother. Her mother fled in fear, and then her father hit the road, abandoning White, her four little sisters and her older brother. The siblings were separated, and for White the next few years were a blur of foster homes and abuse.

What she recalls from this time in her childhood is she was anxious, terrified and lonely — until her last foster home, where the couple cared deeply for her. Although her time there was brief, experiencing that unconditional love was powerful.

As a way to offer that type of nurturing environment for children who have gone through experiences like hers, White founded Kids Hurt Too Hawaii in 2001. In addition to the support groups and mentoring for children ages 3-19 who have lost a parent — which is what the GIFT funding will go toward — it also offers grief-counseling training and conducts crisis management.

“They’re meeting other kids who are just like them,” White says of the groups. “Often, grieving and traumatized children are stigmatized. People shun them. They don’t know what to say, so they stay away.

“I know from my own experience that unconditional love can last you a lifetime, even in a small amount. So what we do here is bring unconditional love to children — and they eat it like candy. I am still amazed at how powerful unconditional love is in children’s lives and how quickly it can bring them into a healing place. It is just awesome.”