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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Circle of help brightens holiday

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer

Willie Hill receives a hot Christmas dinner from 7 year old Briana Lopez, who was among hundreds who volunteered to help feed the less fortunate yesterday at the River of Life Mission and at Gateway Park.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Ten years ago Raylene Puahi lived on the street, sleeping on the steps of the River of Life Mission with dirty, black feet and hair so matted she couldn't run her fingers through it. An addict and drug pusher, she ended up in an Oklahoma prison.

This Christmas, having served her time, she was back at the River of Life, this time volunteering to serve others a hearty Christmas dinner at a place that once reached out to help her.

She wasn't alone. Of the 200 to 300 volunteers who served free holiday meals to the homeless and hungry yesterday in downtown Honolulu, several were there to give back some of the kindness they received when times were tough for them.

Puahi, 49, also entertained the diners with a hula using sign language, a skill she learned in prison and practices by teaching it free at River of Life.

Having gone through the revolving door of drug use, prison and rehabilitation, Puahi said volunteering has helped her end that cycle.

"This is a way to keep from going back," she said.

With Hawai'i's economy staggered by the Sept. 11 attacks and unemployment here at its highest in more than two years, the River of Life Mission, the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa, Doubletree Alana Hotel and Hilton Grand Vacations Club provided up to 1,300 meals yesterday at the mission on Pauahi Street and at Chinatown's Gateway Park.

Merrie Susan Marchant, River of Life's director of operations, said the agency has been serving 35 percent more meals since Sept. 11. At Gateway Park yesterday, 250 more people than expected showed up for the free Christmas dinner.

Last week, the mission held smaller parties, one for men and one for women and children, where gifts were distributed.

Marchant said River of Life couldn't have provided all that it has without generous help from the community, including the volunteers.

"The people on the island are so kind to us," Marchant said. "They just walk in with turkeys and hams."

At the mission yesterday, tables were decorated with garlands and ornaments, and a decorated Christmas tree stood tall in one corner.

Joseph Quinata, 34, said he volunteers at the mission when he's not working because it was a place he could always rely on when he was in need.

"Whenever I was hungry or needed some place to sleep, they never refused me," Quinata said.

At Gateway Park, about 200 volunteers served a traditional turkey dinner to about 600 people, said Noel Trainor, general manager for Hilton.

The volunteers, all Hilton employees, also donated gifts such as blankets, new or gently used clothing, toiletries, books and toys. Two items were given to each person who attended the luncheon.

"The Hilton 'ohana continues to support organizations like the Kau Kau Wagon because we believe that the greatest gift is simply the gift of giving," Trainor said.

The Kau Kau Wagon is a community service project that started more than 10 years ago when police outreach coordinator Sharon Black identified a need in the community and rallied support from organizations such as Hilton.

The luncheon was more like a family gathering, taking place in a beautiful downtown park that is cooled by a black lava-rock waterfall and shade trees, Black said. A crisp breeze blew through the area yesterday, and an early morning rain gave way to cloudy skies.

Black handed out balloons to children while chatting with people from all ages and races who took advantage of the free meal.

Many years ago, Black said, she was among these people.

"My heart is here," she said. "I've been here. I know what it's like to have hard times, to struggle to get through, to try to make ends meet. It's my way to give back."

Recipients were happy to mingle among old friends, share a story or two and receive the gifts and hearty meal, said Charles Depew, 49 and homeless.

As Depew spoke, a big cheer arose from a table run by volunteers from Halau Hula 'O Hokulani, operated by Hokulani DeRego. The table was piled high with stuffed animals and packages of food. The halau had passed out small trash bags, and each time someone brought one back full of trash, a cheer went up and the halau would present the person with a stuffed animal or food.

Yesterday was a time of reflection for halau member Richard Atiburcio, 42, who was volunteering along with his wife and children. Atiburcio lost his job at United Airlines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but he knows he is one of the lucky ones — he will start work at Pearl Harbor next month.

In helping others on Christmas Day, he said, "I wanted to give back and to show my children that there are people who are less fortunate than us."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.