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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 31, 2001

Rod Ohira's People
Compassion key in Wai'anae

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

It starts with extraordinary compassion. Without it, hundreds of social workers like Mary Oneha, Teresa Gonsalves and Cherie Villa wouldn't be able to do what they do day after day, year after year.

Community Health Service social workers and nurses in Wai'anae include, in front, from left, Veronica Gardner, Yvonne Santos and Ivy Johnson, and rear, from left, Teresa Gonsalves, Mary Oneha, Cherie Villa and Leina'ala Schultz.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

As foot soldiers in the war on poverty, they are unsung heroes bringing food, clothing, healthcare services and resource information to Hawai'i's needy. Always respectful of their clients' dignity, they provide hope for many who have nothing else.

Oneha, Gonsalves and Villa are examples of the social work at ground level.

All are employed by the nonprofit Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. Since the arrival of Oneha in June 1992, the center's Community Health Services department has developed an effective working relationship with clients from Kahe Point to Makaha using a grassroots approach. It starts with understanding the lifestyle, culture and attitudes of residents along the Wai'anae Coast.

"You can't come in here and play savior," said Oneha, a Sunset Beach native and Kaimuki resident who supervises a staff of nine as the Community Health Services Department's case management/utilization director. "You'll isolate people by doing that. We try to help individuals discover for themselves what's going to work rather than forcing something on them."

The 'Ewa-born Gonsalves, who heads the perinatal unit of Oneha's department, and Villa, a nurse whose family is from Wai'anae, agree that social work requires more than a "just-a-job" mentality.

"A person who is not caring cannot do this," Gonsalves said. "You see so much poverty. Poverty is going into a home and realizing that there are still people in Hawai'i living on dirt floors. School didn't prepare me for this. When I go home to my family and friends, it makes me feel so fortunate for what we have.

"Nobody grows up wanting to live in poverty or be a drug addict. Somewhere along the way, we've all made bad choices. We're not here to change people. We just try to help them get better or be better. For example, if someone wants to live in a Quonset hut with no running water, our approach is how can we help to make this better for you."

Noting that she received a container of li hing mui tangerine preserves from a resident, Gonsalves recalled, "She was a patient three years ago. This is what the people on the coast are like. They have good hearts and are so generous. In the 10 years I've worked here, I've never had a bad encounter."

Villa earned her nursing degree from Hawai'i Pacific University in January. The Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center provided her with financial assistance for her schooling. Working in the community she grew up in is a way to give something back.

"The people here are very appreciative of any help because they have so little," Villa said. "It moves you to want to give them personal stuff. But we want to empower and encourage them to do it for themselves."

Oneha's leadership and insight has been the catalyst for her department's success. The key has been hiring staff that can work within the Wai'anae community.

"I had a choice to work in town or Wai'anae but I came out here because this community is rich in culture and it felt comfortable to me," said Oneha, who earned her master's degree in nursing from the University of Washington and her doctorate at Colorado. "Our program has developed and evolved around this community.

"The type of person we look for here, aside from their technical skills, is someone willing to share of themselves with this community. We ask applicants why they want to work here to make sure they have the desire to work in primary care with an under-served population."

Compassion should not be mistaken for a soft touch.

"We've seen women come in with a cigarette in hand asking us for toilet paper or a jacket," Gonsalves said. "I tell them, 'Eh Tita, we care about you and the choices you make. But it was your choice to buy a pack of cigarettes. Next time, you better think what decision you going make.' "

It's a tough job that few can handle without burning out. There's no glory in working with the needy.

Those who do it are real heroes.

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.