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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Island People
Activist DeCambra's goal: women's wellness center

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

In the years when her mother was bedridden from a stroke and slowly failing, Ho'oipo DeCambra vividly remembers calling on her Auntie Ellen for help to heal a bedsore her mother had developed.

Ho'oipo DeCambra, an activist who focuses on healing, is organizing a program that, she hopes, will help the women of her Leeward O'ahu community cope with the struggles that come with being female and having families.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

When her auntie arrived, DeCambra watched in wonder as the older woman took out freshly grated coconut, ti leaves and a clean bedsheet torn into bandages. Packing the wound with the coconut, and covering it with the sterile cloth, the kupuna closed her eyes, and began to pray, having fasted in preparation for the work.

Each day for three days she did the same thing.

On the third day, DeCambra says, the sore was healed, and new flesh almost filled the concave wound, said DeCambra. It never returned.

DeCambra tells the story with an awe she still feels. It is a feeling grounded deeply not just in her Hawaiian culture, but also in a sense her own family's heritage of healing, and the implications that has for her.

Her eyes grow misty. One tear, then several, begin a slow wet trek down her cheeks. The longtime Wai'anae activist is facing a new chapter in her life: On June 30, she quit her paying job with the Ho'omau Ke Ola substance abuse treatment program and embarked on an uncertain future, chasing a dream.

Every Saturday through August, she and other women activists will pitch a tent on the grounds of St. Phillip's Church in Ma'ili, and welcome anyone who comes to the fledgling Women's Wellness Center, a place to explore how women can get well and stay well and improve their chances, and their families', of living long, healthy lives.

 •  Ho'oipo DeCambra

Age: 57

Occupation: Wai'anae community activist, formerly with Ho'omau Ke Ola and the American Friends Service Committee

Family: Husband Herb "Stretch" DeCambra, retired from Operators Engineers Local 3; daughter Rhonda, 36, and son Herb, 34; 8 grandchildren

Latest endeavor: The 5th Indigenous Women's Wellness Conference, a springboard to create a Women's Wellness center in Wai'anae

Wonderful idea: To have a "laugh therapist" at the wellness center who can bring laughter back into people's lives

Passion: "Essential oils" and their therapeutic use in healing

Quote: "Relationships are at the root of why and how things happen in communities. Those who choose to work together create this grandeur of experience for each other."

"Once I took that act to quit, a whole new world opened up," DeCambra says. "But my family's scared. They said, 'We're going to make it, aren't we Mom?' And I said 'Yes we are.'

"If I were still stuck in thinking about policies and procedures I'd have no room to be creative."

Her first creative effort in this new phase will be to lead a collection of 400 native leaders, health care providers, planners, educators, students and others from across the Pacific and around the world, through four days of a unique exploration of the cultural roots of native healing practices.

"The Indigenous Women's Wellness Conference" opens Saturday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and runs through Aug. 7. It's been a year in the planning, and is drawing at least two members of Pacific Island royal families.

The conference was envisioned by DeCambra and is supported by a collection of women's groups who gathered the financial support for this holistic look at the value systems of native cultures around the world. The hope is to build a widespread network of women to support global wellness, said DeCambra.

Crucial down payment

She's not quite sure exactly what that looks like, she admits. But it is time to follow her heart. And that starts with the makeshift wellness center, making an offer on a piece of property in Wai'anae where she hopes a permanent home will be built and calling on her own skills and strengths to make it happen. A down payment may come from the $100,000 she was awarded last year as one of 10 national recipients of the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program.

DeCambra's leap of faith was made with gentle pushing from Dixie Padello, her closest friend and fellow activist. The longtime friends work hard at nurturing their friendship — "telling each other we're sorry 25 times a day," said Padello — and often surprising each other with small gifts.

"Women need support from each other," says DeCambra fervently, settling her six-foot frame onto a straight-backed wooden chair in the tiny office of Time Out Services, a Wai'anae respite center for stressed families. This little room has become the headquarters for the wellness conference. Women supporting one another has been the central focus of everything she has done for more than two decades, she said.

A community asset

Since the mid-1970s, she has given her commanding presence to her community. A homemaker who grew into activism while teaching catechism with Sister Anna McAnany, a Maryknoll nun serving in Nanakuli, DeCambra has been a voice for the needs of Wai'anae and its women ever since her babies were small.

Gathering women along the Leeward Coast, she helped build a network that offered them a handhold through domestic abuse, poverty, illness, divorce and other problems.

"It was a simple model of caring," she continues. "We met in each other's kitchens and it didn't cost anything. The support was more important than fancy buildings or programs. And at the heart of it were caring relationships. Simple acts of kindness. That's what we called it."

From that simple beginning in 1979 grew a force that launched a food co-op, published the first Hawai'i anthology of women's stories, empowered many to go back to school. It helped inspire the Women's Health Network, a "kokua" group system of outreach and support for those with breast cancer, the addictions treatment program of Ho'omau Ke Ola, a fledgling community center and Time Out Services.

Each accomplishment has been one more step toward an endpoint that DeCambra is only now coming to recognize. "I've changed my life view," she says, speaking the words carefully. "I no longer want to focus on disease, but on people's resources and strengths. I want to go around the world to study what people are doing to promote wellness. What is it in behavior that promotes longevity? I want that for my community. I believe that you can start anything you desire in your heart by taking action."

A heavy responsibility

The second part of the vision is more difficult to speak about. Ever since she watched her mother heal family members with prayer and Hawaiian herbs when she was a child, she has wondered about her role in that cultural continuum of healing. She knows if she chooses this road, it must be done "consistently" as her mother told her and with full commitment. The responsibility weighs heavily.

 •  The 5th Indigenous Women's Wellness Conference

• Saturday-Tuesday, Hilton Hawaiian Village, Hotel

• "Yesterday's Whispers, Today's Outcries, Tomorrow's Voices, "will bring together more than 400 participants from the Pacific, the U.S. Mainland and around the world to share cultural values and practices including birthing, parenting, healing, educating, storytelling. Included will be workshops on indigenous medical practices, cultural and political movements, oral traditions, spirituality and more.

• Registration: Shannon Kaaekuahiwi, 808-696-3482. Or e-mail skhonu@excite.com.

• Cost: $375 and includes a lu'au at the Bishop Museum, final evening banquet and international reception buffet.

DeCambra's life has turned repeatedly to healing arts. Her purse bears the faint scent of the essential oils she carries with her always, and now the four grandchildren who share the family household come to ask, "Tutu, do you have your oil bag?" The glaucoma that plagued her husband, "Stretch" DeCambra,has reversed itself, she claims, after he spent nine months dabbing a mixture of oils of cypress, juniper and Eucalyptus radia on the skin around his eyes.

"Do you want some joy?" she asks, grasping a reporter's outstretched hand and deftly dropping two glistening beads of golden oil into the palm, before dropping two into her own.

"Don't touch your eyes," she cautions, guiding the way to rub the essence along an arm, behind ears, under the chin.

"The oils do the work and we're helpers," says DeCambra. "Our mission is to get the oils known in the Pacific. People are looking at ways to overcome chronic conditions." She looks at the reporter. "You need 'Raindrop' — oregano, thyme, basil, cypress, birch, marjoram, valor..."

"I swear by lavender," says Padello. "For sunburn. It takes the burn away."

Five years ago, DeCambra was introduced to essential oils by Sophie Ann Aoki, a longtime community activist (and the daughter of well-known death and dying advocate the Rev. Mitsuo Aoki). Since then, DeCambra returned repeatedly to the Mainland to study with naturopath Dr. Gary Young. On her last trip, she took several other Hawai'i women with her, including Senita Nepo, who has been introducing the therapy in Hawai'i's Samoan community.

'She loves everybody'

"She just came across as someone so genuine who love her people," said Nepo. "She's so beautiful. That woman has no barriers. She loves everybody. When I first met Ho'oipo we were just two women with something we want to share with our people. At the convention after they spotlighted her (and the idea of creating a Women's Wellness Center) we'd go to the bathroom and even there, people are shaking our hand and giving us the business card, and saying 'We want to help.'"

Two years ago, DeCambra felt compelled to journey to Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela ,to study herbs and traditional medicine of that culture with Dr. Carlin Browne. "I didn't even know where Aruba was," she recalls.

But again she came back energized and more convinced than ever that her road lay in enhancing well-being and helping people heal.

"I have to follow my heart to support women," she says. "I see that women have gone through immense struggle just to be female in my community."

DeCambra's birth certificate and passport bear the first name Mabel. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that she chose to put away her English name and take her Hawaiian middle name.The sovereignty movement and the Hawaiian Renaissance were creating a surge of new consciousness, and DeCambra came to realize that Hawaiian parents "hid" their babies' true names in the middle and used English names up front.

"It was part of a birthing process, and our Hawaiian names came forward. The name is everything," she muses. "I made a conscious decision I was going to be called Ho'oipo. This beautiful name is about a wind between Moloka'i and Lana'i that causes love between sweethearts. It's like the creation of love in Hawai'i and the world. And now I have started to live that part of who I really am."