Fighting The Good Fight

PACT’s Margaret Takahashi, Norma Spierings, Kim Gould and president-CEO Ryan Kusumoto.

The agency known as Parents And Children Together, or PACT, rolls into its 50th year of selfless service committed to taking down today’s enemies of the family while looking forward to a special gala built around a ‘Hawai‘i Five-0′ theme.

When you think of a nonprofit worker, the image of a humble altruist who dedicates his or her life to helping others comes to mind. But as the past 50 years of service from Parents And Children Together demonstrates, that’s only part of the definition.

Generosity and kindness are critical components of humanitarian efforts, of course, but they don’t account for the true fierceness that PACT staff members employ on a daily basis in tackling some of the biggest issues society faces — from child abuse and neglect to the harsh realities of poverty. So what if you were to expand your view of hard-working organizations like PACT to also see them as the strong fighters they really are, standing up for the most vulnerable in Hawai‘i’s communities to combat such immense challenges as economic distress and barriers to education?

“In all nonprofits, we have folks doing amazing work,” explains Ryan Kusumoto, president and CEO. “When you’re dealing with domestic violence, kūpuna in hospice, etc., these issues involve some of the toughest things in life. Our staff, and the staff of our fellow agencies, carry the weight of the people that they serve, and it’s hard work.”

PACT remains committed to early childhood education. PHOTO COURTESY PACT

As Kusumoto and his dedicated team of do-gooders will tell you, they’re up to the task, and it’s well worth it when the agency’s ever-evolving range of statewide services continues to improve lives. To recognize the past 50 years of giving, the locally based organization is throwing a Hawai‘i Five-0-themed anniversary gala Nov. 17 at The Royal Hawaiian, where the whole gang will be decked out as “PACT Five-0” — a fitting outfit for an organization that’s been a special task force of sorts within the social service sector for decades, taking down society’s enemies of local children and families.

As you can imagine, long-established task forces of this variety are not built overnight. Though PACT today helps 18,000 individuals annually through 18 statewide programs, its success is all the more impressive when you consider its modest beginnings as the Parent Child Center of Kalihi, which opened Aug. 13, 1968. Though started as one of 26 nationally funded programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative, the agency’s inception was very much a community-driven effort, all founded within The Towers at Kūhiō Park and Kūhiō Homes, commonly known as Kūhiō Park Terrace, the largest federal housing unit in the state — and where PACT remains based today, within the community resource center.

“The residents here felt that there was a need for this parent-and-children center, and then it started to grow,” says Kusumoto. “We started to bring in other support services, and there was this idea that we can come together as a community to solve problems that will really support our families, starting with the keiki.”

PACT president and CEO Ryan Kusumoto enjoys working with youngsters such as Tatum Iu, Leighla-Jordan Eselu, Prince Isaako, Johrilina Alvear and Kyle Acio-Nakamiyo.

PACT is best known for its foundational efforts in childhood development. It became a federally funded Head Start Grantee, serving kids ages 3-5, in ’88; an Early Head Start for those ages 0-3 in ’96; and since 1990, its largest annual fundraiser, Keiki Day, has drawn the public’s attention to the educational and domestic needs of Hawai‘i’s children. But over the years, the nonprofit has expanded to address many surrounding issues, putting the “five” in its “Five-0” years of service with a quintet of focus points: domestic abuse prevention and treatment, child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment, mental health support, and community building and economic development — all in addition to its core area of early childhood education.

“It sounds like we’re doing a broad range of things, but they all fall under support services for children and families,” says Kusumoto, a former Goodwill Industries employee who has become one of the Steve McGarretts of the nonprofit world, commandeering PACT’s missions since 2014.

A sampling of that spectrum of support ranges from a statewide underage sex Trafficking Victim Assistance Program to an Economic Development Center, where clients receive guidance and tools for securing and retaining employment. PACT also has expanded its geographic reach, starting in 1997, when it opened a Family Peace Center on Lāna‘i, providing child welfare and domestic violence support for families.

Over the next 12 years, the organization sent its fierce philanthropists out to Maui, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i and the Big Island, until it could finally be distinguished as a statewide program in 2009.

Zachery Grace (in green shirt) is one of PACT’s success stories. Today, he serves as youth development specialist for the agency’s Community Teen Program. PHOTO COURTESY PACT

When you’re on a “PACT Five-0” operation to bring social justice to those in need, crucial to success is being present in the communities you serve — something PACT realized early on in its quest.

“We’ve learned a lot from being here 50 years alongside these residents at Kūhiō Park Terrace. In order for us to support these families, we have to have that trust. They have to know we’re here and we’re not running away. So calling this home for us helps us to build that relationship and be more effective,” says Kusumoto.

As PACT’s programs were gradually dispatched throughout the state, so too came the need for additional locations. The organization currently has about 50 sites throughout the state, taking shape in the form of classrooms, abuse shelters, family centers and administrative offices, not to mention countless dwellings where families receive home-based counseling and personalized care. Though PACT manages to fly somewhat under the public’s radar, ever so modest about the hard work that it does, the truth is it’s making a big impact across the islands every day.

So how does this strong squad of charitable workers go about solving crises throughout the state? When the nonprofit changed its name to Parents And Children Together in 1990, it highlighted an invaluable aspect of how it carries out its duties: working together with, rather than for, its clients.

“A key part of our service delivery is including the voices of the people that we serve into the solution,” explains Kusumoto. “When we talk about the big issues that we’re facing, say poverty or domestic violence, a lot of our families know how to solve that problem, they might just be under-resourced to do so. Where we would fail would be to come in and say, ‘This is what I think you need because I’m looking at it through my lens.'”

Throughout its programs, PACT pairs that individualized approach with proven models and evidence-based forms of therapy to assist each ‘ohana in meeting its goals, big or small. The nonprofit’s plights come to fruition through the valiant efforts of more than 400 employees, ranging from preschool teachers and aids to licensed family therapists, administrative staff, home visitors and case managers who work personally with families and individuals to help them navigate their way out of various problems, as well as outreach workers who ensure community members know that services are available to them.

This work positively touches thousands of lives, but its impact is perhaps best measured when seen in the transformation of one individual, such as in the case of Zachery Grace, youth development specialist with PACT’s Community Teen Program. As a former resident at KPT and one of five siblings, Grace was first introduced to PACT as a youngster in elementary school, but it wasn’t until he joined the program in high school that the course of his life would change for the better.

The O‘ahu-based Teen Programs, located at KPT and Hālawa housing, offer spaces for children ages 5-18 to get together outside of school and build leadership skills and friendships through activities, community projects — including fashion shows and cooking competitions — and simply hanging out. For Grace, the KPT Teen Program helped him stay on top of his schoolwork during a critical time in his adolescence when he was most susceptible to the threats of gang involvement, drugs and alcohol within his neighborhood.

“The staff was always there to be the support I needed,” recalls Grace, who, through his involvement in the program as well as his own hard work, earned a full-ride scholarship to Chaminade University, where he graduated with a degree in biology in 2014. “For me, it was mostly academic; I would get lazy, so I needed someone to hold me accountable and say, ‘Did you do your homework? Are you ahead on your essay?’ That’s really where I could have fallen off track, but they made sure I did what I needed to do.”

Being around for half a century is a huge success for any organization, so as PACT gears up for its next chapter, the humanitarian brigade knows that continuing to adapt to the community’s challenges as they arise will be imperative moving forward.

As one of the larger agencies in the state, PACT is currently trying to expand the conversation around poverty — and its solutions.

“Poverty gets a bad rap because people often blame the individual, but when we really start to understand the root causes of poverty, there’s many other factors involved: economic and political systems, and community conditions that we can all try to improve,” explains Kusumoto.

He adds that while intervention services are a large part of PACT’s current repertoire, the nonprofit is working to focus more of its efforts on prevention. And in the meantime, you can count on the fighting spirit of those who have helped the organization get to this point, and who will continue to lead it full-speed ahead because, at the end of the day, these are the good guys standing up for the community and striving to say, “Book ‘em, Danno!” to major threats in the islands.

“There are people out there who may not have hope, and all they need is someone to give a damn about them, and that’s what our guys do every day,” says Kusumoto. “I’m inspired by our staff and the resiliency of our community, and that gives me hope for Hawai‘i and our future.”

To learn more about PACT and its anniversary gala, call 847-3285 or visit parentsandchildrentogether.org. If you would like to make a donation in honor of 50 years of service, text PACT at 71777 or go online.