Caring hands help at Kea'au
Seniors from Japan join area volunteers to feed park's homeless
For Giichi Ishihara, the opportunity to help prepare and serve a hot meal to some 200 homeless people living at Kea'au Beach Park yesterday was a picture postcard chance of a lifetime.
"I can't imagine seeing myself actually standing in the background of the images of Hawai'i that I saw in the movies 30 years ago," said a delighted Ishihara, 77, of Tokyo. Before this week he had never set foot outside Japan or even flown on an airplane.
"It is paradise."
Ishihara was one of 10 members of a group of senior Japanese volunteers from the Univers Foundation who are spending the week on O'ahu as participants in a new cultural exchange program established between the foundation and O'ahu's St. Francis Hospice, a program of St. Francis Healthcare System.
Volunteers from Univers Foundation, which is sponsored by the Shinnyo-en, a Buddhist order, have been trained to provide emotional care and support for elderly victims of devastating natural disasters in Japan, such as the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Kobe, Niigata and Tokyo.
Since Monday, the Japanese volunteers, along with three Univers staff workers, have visited various aspects of the St. Francis system, which is a Franciscan order that's been helping disadvantaged people in Hawai'i since the late 19th century. Yesterday, the visiting volunteers teamed with members of Our Lady of Kea'au, a 58-acre Franciscan refuge on a hillside overlooking the scenic Wai'anae Coast, to cook and serve meals for beach dwellers not far away.
The exchange program was born about a year ago after Sallyanne Pekelo, who heads up the St. Francis Hospice volunteer program, bumped into a group of Univers Foundation folks visiting Hawai'i and discovered that the peace goals of both organizations were remarkably compatible.
"This is not about hospice, it's about volunteerism," explained Sister Beatrice Tom, chief administrator of Our Lady of Kea'au. "It's not about religion or faith. It's about spirituality and of being of service to other human beings."
And while the Univers Foundation members are accustomed to helping elderly disaster victims in Japan, feeding needy tent dwellers in Hawai'i offered insight about those who have no place to live.
"I have heard that there are these kinds of difficulties even in paradise," said Ishihara. "So, I'm happy to be able to come here and help in this way."
For volunteer Emi Kanda, 65, of Osaka, helping the homeless was also an awareness experience. She said in some ways the homeless in Japan have it more difficult than victims of natural disasters because they are not eligible for government assistance. Their status as citizens is diminished because without having a residence they become ineligible to vote.
"They don't have the energy to live, actually, because they don't have the right to vote, and they can't apply for any support from the government," said Kanda, who like Ishihara and the others was pleased to hand out food, clothing and accessories to those in need at Kea'au Beach Park.
Tent dweller Danny Letuli, 32, a longtime Wai'anae resident who lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident, spoke for many of his beach community companions when he expressed his appreciation.
"I'm very thankful that the people from Our Lady of Kea'au and these Japanese volunteers came to help those of us who are living out here," said Letuli.