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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Maui volunteer still counts her blessings

By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor

KAHULUI, Maui — Betty Jean Labrenz was undergoing treatment at Maui Memorial Medical Center for a serious vascular illness when she saw a man standing timidly outside the door of her hospital room.

Betty Jean Labrenz has helped the needy on Maui for 22 years through Operation Blessing. Many refer to her simply as "Grandma."

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Labrenz, 76, who runs Operation Blessing here, called to him to find out if he was lost.

"He told me he had heard in church that I was sick," she recalled of her hospital stay last March.

The man had received assistance from Operation Blessing 20 years earlier when his family was going through a rough patch, and he wanted to deliver a belated thank you and wish Labrenz a speedy recovery.

"I couldn't believe that 20 years later he would come to see me. That makes you feel good to know you've helped someone," Labrenz said.

After 22 years of helping thousands of folks in Maui County, Labrenz — known to many simply as "Grandma" — is unlikely to give up any time soon.

"You can't get rid of me. It's hard to fire a volunteer," she said.

Operation Blessing, which is run out of a small Kahului warehouse barely larger than a two-car garage, provides food, clothing, school supplies, toys and emergency cash for rent and other necessities.

The nonprofit organization distributed Thanksgiving food packages to 300 needy families on Maui, 81 on Lana'i and 75 on Moloka'i, and is expected to do the same at Christmas.

 •  To help, send contributions to:

Operation Blessing
P.O. Box 332
Kahului, HI 96733-6832
Phone: (808) 871-8491

Salvation Army's Kahului Corps
45 W. Kamehameha Ave.
Kahului, HI 96732

Lahaina Corps
131 Shaw St.
Lahaina, HI 96761

Labrenz had decided that Operation Blessing, a ministry of televangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club, wouldn't be able to bring Christmas cheer to the mostly Hawaiian community of Hana, where 150 families received holiday food packages and toys last year.

But, as has happened so often since Labrenz started Operation Blessing in 1979, a check arrived in the mail — this time for $2,000 — and Hana is back on track, although on a smaller scale than last year.

Because of its connection to the politically conservative and sometimes controversial Robertson, Operation Blessing was first greeted with skepticism by local churches, who were unsure of its mission, Labrenz said. To allay their suspicions, she said she avoided affiliation with any single congregation, and over the first few years visited a different church each Sunday, forming relationships with individual pastors and their flocks.

Despite her own strong faith, Labrenz also instructs her small volunteer force of 15 not to proselytize among those who come seeking help.

Today, a majority of Maui churches help Operation Blessing with food and clothing drives throughout the year, and some, such as the Door of Faith Church in Wailuku, send monthly checks.

Operation Blessing is helping about a dozen church families with holiday food baskets, and in the past has come through with emergency aid, said Door of Faith member Melanie Nishita.

Labrenz's organization provides those in need "with the knowledge that someone cares on the outside, not just our own church people," Nishita said. "Betty Jean exhibits the love of Jesus and love of others. In a time of need, they really feel like somebody is there for them."

Operation Blessing also works closely with most of the human service agencies in Maui County to provide short-term assistance to struggling families.

Along with food baskets for the holidays, Operation Blessing — with money from the 700 Club — annually provides Maui Family Support Services clients with school supplies.

"I was just amazed at the wonderful bags of school supplies that came in for these children. A lot of our families are just scraping by and this really helps them, especially if they have three or four children and need school supplies for all of them," said Maui Family Support Services program manager Colleen Welty.

Although Operation Blessing receives monthly checks from the 700 Club, not a penny can be spent on administrative or overhead expenses. All of it must directly benefit the needy.

Labrenz relies on the generosity of the community to keep going. She proudly points out that so far, Operation Blessing hasn't missed a rent payment.

"I've always gotten through every year. When I've reached the bad points, people tell me I live by faith, and that's where I'm at," she said. "I believe that we dedicated this to the Lord, so this is the Lord's business. We get credited with this thing, but we had nothing to do with it."

After being sidelined for five months with her illness, Labrenz has cut her schedule from 45 to 60 hours per week to three days a week.

When she does come in, it's always with her husband, Bob, 79, a retired phone company employee who has had Alzheimer's disease since 1996. The two have been married 55 years.

As she busies herself at the Kahului warehouse, he sits quietly in a chair out front until it's time to go home.

Don't ask Labrenz about her own hardships. She said her recent illness refocused her commitment to Operation Blessing.

"It helped me take a good long look at what I was doing. I have so much more than other people," she said.

This Christmas, Operation Blessing is seeking canned goods, blankets and warm clothing ("My people are cold," Labrenz reported) and toys for children.

The Salvation Army also helps needy families on Maui. The Kahului Corps reports 200-plus applications for Christmas assistance, and 269 are seeking help from the Lahaina Corps.

Contact Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.