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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 23, 2007

Volunteers bring holiday cheer to Kakaako homeless shelter

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Christmas at a homeless shelter

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jill Omori, an assistant professor at the medical school who helped found the outreach project, hands out presents to homeless children at the Next Step shelter.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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It was hard to tell who enjoyed the Christmas spirit most last night at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kaka'ako.

Was it the dozens of children who lined up to decorate cookies, eat ice cream and receive donated gifts?

Was it the mothers and fathers who watched appreciatively as the faces of their kids shined with delight?

Or was it the young medical students and a few other volunteers who made it all possible?

In the end, all that mattered was knowing that Christmas aloha was alive and well in a place where it might be needed most.

"If they're happy, I'm happy," said Suzanne Leha, who watched as her three children took part in the second annual party hosted at the shelter by the Homeless Outreach and Medical Education project, an effort launched by the John A. Burns School of Medicine to monitor the health shelter residents.

Throughout the year, the school's students and other volunteers provide weekly clinical services at the shelter, getting to know some of the residents, especially the young ones. The residents get medical care and referrals, and the students get valued practice and insight into public health needs.

Last night's party, though, was a chance for residents and students to share something beyond a professional relationship. It was a chance to get personal.

"It feels a little less like business and a little more like sharing time with friends," said Taryn Park, a first-year medical school student from Mililani who helped solicit and wrap presents for the 2-year-old shelter, which has about 250 residents, nearly one-third of them children.

Park said coming to the shelter at Christmas helped her appreciate her own comfortable upbringing as well as the special challenges homeless people face at this time of year. "I'm really looking forward to just relaxing with my own family this Christmas," she said.

Like most mothers, Leha said that she wanted to keep all the presents her children receive wrapped until Christmas Day. Her 8-month-old son, Joevan, was still too young to care, but like most kids, her two daughters, Tatiana, 12, and Tiare, 6, wanted to open them now.

So far, Leha was winning. Outside her small cubicle on the concrete floor of a former warehouse building next to Kaka'ako Waterfront Park, Leha has a small Christmas tree with lights; underneath it are several donated gifts, evidence that many people haven't forgotten those less fortunate than themselves.

"It's really amazing," said Frieda Field, an owner of Aloha Signs who went to a going-out-of-business KB Toys store and bought dozens of gifts to bring to the shelter. When she arrived last night, she had no idea that the medical students were already planning a party, but she and family members quickly got into the spirit, parceling out dozens of dolls, games and other toys to children who waited patiently.

"This is the first year I've done something like this," Field said. "My own sons get so many gifts, and I just wanted to do something to help other kids that don't have a lot. Just look at the smiles on those faces and you know it's worth it."

Kisha Beaird, 27, who has been living in the shelter for three months with her 7-year-old son Issiah and her grandmother, Josie Voss, said events like the one last night help boost the spirit of residents.

"It really keeps us going, knowing that people care," said Beaird, who said she is working and going to school, plans to buy her son a bicycle during the after-Christmas sales, and hopes to be out of the shelter by early next year.

Dr. Jill Omori, who helped found the medical's school outreach project, said the students had worked for weeks organizing the event, which included Christmas caroling and was topped off with an ice cream sundae bar.

"Sometimes, we just forget how hard it is for the people who are here, especially around the holidays," Omori said. "We just wanted to do something a little extra for them."

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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