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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, August 30, 2002

Bernard Punikai'a is lesson in determination

In an era when people don't vote and claim to have given up on any hope of affecting government or civic affairs, it is instructive to look at the work of Bernard Punikai'a.

Punikai'a, 72, was honored yesterday by Gov. Ben Cayetano for a lifetime of work on behalf of human rights, human dignity and the rights of Hansen's disease patients.

With humor, humility and more than a small degree of stubbornness, Punikai'a has taken on the authorities on behalf of his fellow Hansen's disease patients over and over again. His successes have come slowly, but almost always surely.

Perhaps his biggest struggle, and in the end his biggest single success, was his leadership of the struggle to save Hale Mohalu, a Pearl City facility for Hansen's disease patients. When the state tried to close down the dilapidated facility and move the remaining patients to Leahi Hospital, Punikai'a, Clarence Naia and a few others resisted.

They fought for five years in the courts, in the Legislature and elsewhere to preserve the facility. Eventually, they were forcibly evicted, but their efforts continued. After nearly a decade of additional work, Punikai'a and others were successful in persuading the state to build a new senior citizen facility at Hale Mohalu, which includes rooms for Hansen's disease patients who might choose to live there.

Punikai'a has been honored internationally for his work on behalf of human rights and leprosy patients around the world. But his greatest legacy will be here at home, where he has demonstrated that even against tall odds, it is still possible to stand up for what you believe and, in the end, prevail.