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Christina O’Connor

Fame For A Good Cause

Eleven years ago, a group of young professionals came together with two goals: to raise funds for local charitable organizations while promoting philanthropy to other young adults. The group they formed to achieve their mission, GIFT (Giving Inspiration For Tomorrow) Foundation of Hawaii, has since donated more than $1.5 million to groups that include Hawaii Literacy, Hawaii Nature Center and Hawaii Autism Foundation through an annual fundraising party.

Currently, GIFT is ramping up for this year’s event, which will take place Friday, Oct. 25, from 8 p.m. to midnight (VIP party starts at 7 p.m.) at The Republik, with the theme “Fame To Claim – This is Your 15 Minutes.”

Event co-chairwoman and GIFT board member Ashley Wang, a strategic communications consultant, explains that GIFT aims to help “fledging nonprofits, ones that need just that little kick to get started and get them where they need to go.” GIFT seeks groups that focus on youths and education, and have a large impact in the community.

“Many of us have been blessed, and I think it is our place in our community to be able to share whatever knowledge and resources we have,” adds co-chairman Jon Whittington, president of the home loans division at American Savings Bank.

This year’s beneficiaries are Good Beginnings Alliance, which works on policy and advocacy for health, safety and school readiness for young children; Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation, which assists, supports and advocates for childhood cancer patients and survivors and their families; and Waipa Foundation, which preserves and restores the Waipa ahupuaa in Hanalei on Kauai while teaching the community about these processes.

Initially created as a sort of anti-fundraiser event – early GIFT members conceptualized it as being “not your parents’ fundraiser” – GIFT’s event is an alternative to standard high-end charity dinners.

“It is a crazy party – we are doing good, but we also are having fun,” Wang says, adding that the party is an opportunity to dress up and get creative with the theme. “We thought (the theme) encompassed everything from one-hit wonders to actors to reality show stars.”

But GIFT stresses that the real stars of the evening are the three beneficiaries.

“These beneficiaries come from a place of deep caring, commitment and love,”

Whittington says. “A lot of these organizations come out of a personal passion or a need that they have identified in maybe a very specific level, but then realize has a much larger need.”

Good Beginnings Alliance

With the state no longer funding junior kindergarten programs designed for 4-year-olds born after July as of the 2014-15 school year, a few thousand families will be left to either put off schooling for a year or pay for a private preschool.

“A lot of families have been telling us that they have to make choices – is it rent or preschool?” says Good Beginnings Alliance executive director Deborah Zysman, who has two children of her own – an infant and a 4-year-old, who is among those late-born children who would have been eligible to begin junior kindergarten next year.

Wanting to ensure that all keiki are ready to enter kindergarten, Good Beginnings Alliance launched its latest project, Be My Voice Hawaii campaign, which will receive funding from the GIFT event.

GBA was established in 1997 by the state Legislature as an intermediary between government and the community to address issues in early education. In addition to advocating for early education, GBA conducts programs that focus on the health, safety and education of keiki up to age 8. Other issues that GBA currently advocates for include developmental screening for schoolchildren and increasing dental health programs.

So far, through the Be My Voice campaign, GBA was successful in lobbying to secure $6.5 million from the state for the school readiness program to provide subsidies for low-income children to attend preschool. GBA estimates the funding, which goes to state Department of Human Services and will be granted to eligible families starting next school year, will serve about 900 children. GBA’s goal with the campaign is to eventually serve all 4- year-olds in some capacity.

“There is a correlation between children who don’t get early education and their outcomes later in life,” Zysman says. “If you don’t lay that solid foundation down, you are building on quicksand. We have a lot of kids who are not getting that foundation now.”

Zysman came to GBA about a year ago with a background in policy work and public health. Most recently, she led Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii. She viewed GBA as a place to effectively prevent a range of interrelated issues.

“In public health, we talk a lot about socioeconomic status and poverty and education – and those things being major drivers to health outcomes down the line,” Zysman says. “We are working from the earliest years on health and education of our kids – and if we are able to change those trajectories and education paths that kids are on and the health paths they are on, to me that has room for enormous positive change long term.”

Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation

“Think about it: If one of your children was ill, you would either have to quit your job or you would have to take extended leaves of absence,” says Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation administrative manager Tara Humphreys. “The family is now one income less, with the added stress of the mounting bills that arrive with a cancer diagnosis, as well as the continuation of the usual household expenses.”

Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation was founded in 1991 by a group of parents whose children had cancer. It serves current patients, as well as survivors of childhood cancer, addressing multifaceted needs. Its main project is providing financial assistance.

“We can pay some of those expenses for you, including medical expenses, or even just food while you are at the hospital, whatever to help support these families and take a little bit of stress off,” Humphreys explains.

Other programs are post-treatment financial assistance, book reimbursement for survivors attending college, a scholarship fund and a support group.

The GIFT event will help HCCF launch a tutoring program for kids while they are in the hospital.

“They are getting good, quality medical care, but a lot of times they are not getting to go to school,” Humphreys says. “At first (they) are kind of excited they don’t have to go, but then they miss their friends and have that sense that they are going to fall behind when they go back.”

Humphreys knows the impact childhood cancer can have on a family – her 18-year-old nephew battled leukemia as a toddler. At HCCF, Humphreys gets to help families facing similar situations.

She recalls one of the first phone calls she got from a family – a distraught mother whose son recently had been diagnosed.

“It’s almost like you can’t think straight because you have all of these thoughts and you are so afraid for your child,” Humphreys says. “And I was able to tell her, ‘Here is what I can do for you, here is how I can help.’ And you could hear the change in her voice, the stress just came off.”

Waipa Foundation

When Stacy Sproat-Beck returned home to the North Shore of Kauai from college in the early 1990s, the town she came back to was different than the one that she remembered from her youth.

Largely a subsistence community through the 1970s, it began to change by what Sproat-Beck calls the “resortification” of the area. Families – many that were farmers, fishermen and hunters – were losing access to the land because of increased development. When yet another high-end resort was proposed in the 1980s, a group of community members – including Sproat-Beck’s father – protested and fought to preserve the land, forming Waipa Foundation.

Today, Waipa Foundation manages the 1,600 acres that make up the Waipa watershed through maintaining streams, expanding farmlands and restoring fish ponds, taro fields and gardens. It is run by 10 full-time staff members – including Sproat-Beck, who has been executive director since 2001 – and serves thousands each year through its educational and volunteer programs. Waipa welcomes students from kindergarten through high school – as well as community groups and other adult volunteers – to work on restoration projects. While conducting hands-on projects, Waipa educates its volunteers on the importance of native plants and maintaining the ahupuaa.

“We are trying to preserve the values of our community, the closeness of food and the land, and the overall idea of taking care of the land so that it will take care of you,” Sproat-Beck says.

The funds from GIFT Foundation will go toward Waipa’s latest project: building a community kitchen and poi mill that will be available for use by local farmers or entrepreneurs.

“We are excited about giving farmers the opportunity to earn (more) money a pound for their poi than they get off of raw taro,” Sproat-Beck explains.

Waipa itself also will use the kitchen to prepare food for its programs. Waipa promotes healthy snacks to keiki who participate in its programs. “We have gotten a whole bunch of kids from our community addicted to eating kale salad,” Sproat-Beck says.

GIFT Foundation is excited that this year’s party is benefitting three diverse groups that all are invested in helping Hawaii’s keiki thrive.

“With Children’s Cancer Foundation, that is something near and dear to all of our hearts, especially those of us who have kids,” Whittington says.

“With Waipa, they are enabling their community to take care of themselves, and giving them the facilities and the resources to do it,” Wang says. “And then with the Good Beginnings Alliance program, we feel that would have a long-term impact on early education, which is needed so much in Hawaii.”

Sponsorship tables for Fame to Claim are still available. For more information on the event, call 457-0880, visit giftfoundationofhawaii.org or email gift@gifthawaii.org.

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