The Ties That Bond
In theory, the mission of The GIFT (Giving Inspiration for Tomorrow) Foundation of Hawaii doesn’t sound all that different from any other fundraising group: It aims to raise money and awareness for nonprofits. In practice, though, as Foundation member Morgan Kaya puts it, it’s “outrageously fun.”
That’s because GIFT raises that money and awareness by throwing a huge, highly anticipated costume party each October, with all proceeds going toward three different local nonprofit organizations to support their growth. Doubling as a way to encourage philanthropy among young people, GIFT is run by a group of young professionals. Founded in 2003, GIFT has raised millions of dollars for dozens of organizations.
Under the theme “James Bondage,” hundreds donned secret agent-related costumes for this year’s party at Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, which took place last Saturday. But the impact that the three beneficiary organizations — Family Programs Hawaii, Heart Start Hawaii Foundation and Project Vision Hawaii — have on the community is no secret, and GIFT wanted to make sure of that.
“We look to put our foundation’s money behind passionate directors and staff, who give so much of themselves for the causes they believe in so deeply and want to make a difference,” says Robert Kurisu, who co-chaired this year’s event alongside Kaya. “We’d like to think we help them take the next step that gets them to the next level. In the end, we all win.”
FAMILY PROGRAMS HAWAII
A couple of times a year, Keith Kuboyama goes out to lunch or celebrates birthdays with former foster kids he had worked with through Family Programs Hawaii. Only, many of them are not kids anymore; it’s such a lasting bond that some of them are well into their 40s by now.
“You develop that relationship, so you become sort of like their pseudo aunty or uncle,” says Kuboyama, Family Programs’ executive vice president. “And having stable relationships has a lot to do with how these kids grow.”
Family Programs Hawaii, which operates on Oahu and in Hilo, works with kids in three arenas of the foster system: prevention, to help them remain in homes; support, to assist families in the foster care system; and transition, to help foster youths navigate their way into adulthood. Its programs include a range of initiatives, including educating families on proper care, recruiting adoptive families, offering peer support and activities for foster youths, and more. Family Programs also runs a receiving home in Maili, where it cares for keiki while keeping siblings together.
“We help them develop skills that will help them be self-sufficient and become contributing members of our society,” Kuboyama says.
The GIFT funding will go toward the Ho‘ololi Mua No Ke Ola Senior Program in Hilo, which guides foster youths ages 17-21 as they transition out of high school and move into continuing their education or getting a job.
“We are helping them prepare for secondary education or vocational training,” Kuboyama explains.
Ho‘ololi Mua No Ke Ola walks students through a broad list of topics including career preparation and personal budgeting. It also features leadership development training in which kids participate in various community service activities.
“We are hoping that we can help them by giving them a sense of hope,” Kuboyama says. “A lot of times for these families, they may feel like there are all these things happening — a lot of pressure economically, or housing or whatever it might be. What we try to do is give them a sense of hope — in addition to the services — that will allow them to thrive in the future.”
For more information, visit familyprogramshawaii.org.
HEART START HAWAII FOUNDATION
A few years ago, at age 11, Iolani student Malia Benn heard about the near-death experience of English teacher Peter Greenhill: One day, while playing basketball, he went into cardiac arrest.
Malia didn’t know Green-hill well at the time, but her thoughts went to her father, Trevor Benn.
“My dad also has a heart problem, so it freaked me out that that could be him,” recalls Malia, who now is in eighth grade.
But Greenhill was saved by an automated external defibrillator (AED), a tool that is used to restore a regular heart rhythm, so Malia told Trevor that he needed to get one, too.
Then Malia found out that Iolani had 13 AED devices on campus — but that some schools didn’t have any.
“It is really safe being on my campus,” she says. “If someone does collapse, they will be safe because our nurses or other teachers know how to perform CPR and (have) an AED, but kids and staff at other schools may not know how to do those things.
“I wanted to figure out a way to help out other schools that maybe couldn’t afford an AED,” she adds.
So Malia launched her very own nonprofit with Trevor’s help: Heart Start Hawaii, which supplies AEDs to schools in need, as well as CPR training. So far, the organization has installed AEDs at 14 schools statewide. But it wants to expand its reach.
“There are 300 schools that need at least one,” Trevor says. “We are nowhere near scratching the surface.”
Up until now, Heart Start has relied entirely on fund-raising efforts. The GIFT funding will help the organization finance additional AEDs — they estimate they’ll be able to get at least 30 more — along with CPR dummies for training.
While Trevor does spear-head a lot of the logistical and fundraising efforts, he credits the core of the organization to Malia: “The impetus for this whole thing is Malia’s desire to help and get out there.”
And one of the things that Malia wants to focus on most is sharing her knowledge by educating other kids on CPR.
“The machines are ultimately very expensive, and the idea of having them everywhere is going to be a bit of a tall order,” Trevor admits. “But if we can get enough kids a knowledge of how to do CPR …”
“Then if someone does drop that they know, they will know what to do,” Malia adds.
“It will save a lot of lives. That is our mission,” Trevor says. “Hopefully Malia will perpetuate it by training another generation of Malias.”
For more information, visit heartstarthawaii.org.
PROJECT VISION HAWAII
After losing his business, Ray (pseudonym used for privacy reasons) was forced into a homeless shelter and no longer had health insurance. He quickly became beloved at the shelter, volunteering beyond what was expected and always offering to clean the whole dining room after every meal.
But because of health issues, it’s been hard for him to get a job. Then, during a screening from Project Vision Hawaii, he was identified as having dense cataracts. The organization arranged for Ray to receive surgery and follow-up care.
“Ray was depressed and losing sight of his life’s purpose,” says Project Vision executive director Elizabeth “Annie” Valentin. “He now can see, and states that we saved his life. He is very grateful and is on his way out of homelessness.”
Project Vision provides vision screenings via mobile units. Seeking out populations that may not have access to vision care otherwise — including low-income communities, rural neighborhoods, homeless shelters, keiki and seniors — the organization aims to detect and treat eye issues. It began as an off-shoot under Retina Institute of Hawaii, expanding into its own nonprofit in 2011. At the time, Valentin was the only staff member. Now, Project Vision is a statewide program with staff members in each county — and with the GIFT Foundation funding, it will soon add a fourth mobile unit to be placed on Maui.
“As an organization, I feel like we are almost to our happy place, and the GIFT Foundation funding certainly helps,” Valentin says.
“It completes our fleet,” she adds. “We have always served all the islands … and have shipped (buses) to the Neighbor Islands, but we would only stay for a month, tops. As we increase our fleet, we increase our staff, and we have been able to increase our statewide services year-round.”
Project Vision also has expanded to provide additional health screenings, resources and education through partnerships with more than 100 agencies statewide.
“Eye health is reflective of other areas of health,” Valentin explains. “We look at health in a really holistic way. We try to partner with agencies and leverage those resources to ensure that when we are in the community, as many quality services are offered as possible.”
Recalling that story about Ray, Valentin says it is an amazing one — but it also is pretty commonplace. She encounters things like that on a daily basis.
“In this work, we have those amazing aha! moments all the time, where people will tell us, ‘I wouldn’t have known that I have glaucoma, and you prevented me from going blind,’ or ‘My child wasn’t performing well in school and now they have glasses and they are at the top of their class,'” Valentin says.
For more information, visit projectvisionhawaii.org.