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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 2, 2007

'Makeover' home recipient earns $100K

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By Rick Daysog and Kim Fassler
Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Theresa Momi Akana, center, is shown last month seeing the house built for her by the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" television reality show. Her husband, Ben, is in the blue shirt behind her.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Theresa "Momi" Akana, who moved into a new home built by the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" reality show, earned more than $100,000 in a year as the head of the nonprofit organization she founded, and her husband is in a position that usually pays more than $125,000 a year.

As executive director of Keiki O Ka 'Aina Preschool Inc., Theresa Akana received $97,018 in salary and $5,931 in benefits and expenses during the year ending Sept. 30, 2005, according to the organization's most recent tax filing.

The tax filings show that Theresa Akana also received $22,000 in annual rent from Keiki O Ka 'Aina for use of the top floor of her old home at 3030 Kalihi Street.

Her husband, Ben Akana, is a senior vice president at First Hawaiian Bank, where he has worked since 1991. The annual salary for vice presidents or senior vice presidents of major banks in Hawai'i typically ranges from $125,000 to $183,000, according to a study by ERI Economic Research Institute, a Redmond, Wash.-based executive pay consulting firm.

Last month, the staff of ABC-TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," developer Brookfield Homes Hawai'i and about 3,000 volunteers completed a 3,500-square-foot home for Theresa Akana and her family and a 4,500-square community center for her nonprofit organization.

The new home, at 3135 Kalihi St., is down the street from Akana's old home, which was damaged by flooding in 2004.

The project will air Sept. 23 to open the fifth season of "Extreme Makeover."

In a telephone interview, Theresa Akana said "Extreme Makeover" producers were aware of her salary as Keiki O Ka 'Aina's executive director.

Theresa Akana said the show's legal team conducted an extensive financial background check. She said her family was picked because of Keiki O Ka 'Aina's broad impact on the local community.

Ben Akana declined comment for this story.

'NOT BASED ON NEED'

Keiki O Ka 'Aina spokeswoman Kanoe Naone said, "This show is based on the decade of service that Momi has done for our community," adding that, "I'm positive that this show is not based on need."

Naone said Theresa Akana's compensation is competitive with what other similar nonprofits pay their executive directors, and her pay was below market levels for several years.

According to Naone, Akana initially balked when Keiki O Ka 'Aina's board of directors wanted to to give her a raise in 2005 because she felt the money could be put to better use by the organization. Keiki O Ka 'Aina's tax filings show that Akana earned $37,073 in the nonprofit's 2002 fiscal year and $70,550 in its fiscal year 2003.

"That's the kind of person she is," Naone said.

An Advertiser review of the tax filings of the state's largest nonprofit preschools and early admissions programs found that the local schools paid their heads about $93,000 a year. Nationally, the average is about $70,000 a year, according to figures compiled by ERI Economic Research.

Since its launch in December 2003, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," hosted by Ty Pennington, has helped nearly 100 families. They include victims of Hurricane Katrina, tornado survivors and a wounded Iraq war veteran, according to the show's Web site.

A June 6 news release, issued by the show and Brookfield Homes, said, "Momi and her three children attempted to make their own improvements to their home, they never had the money or the expertise to complete anything properly, so the house is a series of unfinished construction projects."

"As a nonprofit, there is no money to fix the damage done to Momi's home or to fix the structures that now house Keiki O Ka 'Aina," according to a June 7 news release from the show.

Denise Cramsey, executive producer of the show's creator Lock & Key Productions, said the show's legal department conducted extensive background checks on the Akanas.

Cramsey said that income was just one of many factors considered in the selection process. The candidate's need for a new home, the desperation of their plight and the amount of service that they do for the community are weighed heavily, she said.

When asked whether any of the families featured in past shows earned more than $100,000 a year, Cramsey said the show tries to assist people of all walks of life, who run into hardships.

"I think Momi certainly fits the bill," Cramsey said.

Brookfield Homes also described the Akana family as "deserving."

"Brookfield Homes Hawai'i contributed our resources to help make a dream come true by building a home for a deserving family and a community center for the children of Hawai'i," the company said in a news release.

"This is exactly what we achieved by donating our time, effort and resources. We are most proud to have been a part of saying thank you to the Akana family for its great service to Hawai'i's people."

NEW HOME LEASED

Founded in 1996 by Akana, Keiki O Ka 'Aina operates more than 40 traveling preschools and specializes in native Hawaiian cultural programs.

The organization's preschool programs serve about 1,000 children each year, and its programs for parents reach another 1,000 each year.

Over the years, the center has helped more than 9,000 families and has won numerous awards for its service to the community.

Last year, the organization was one of three across the country to be recognized by St. Louis, Mo.-based Parents as Teachers National Center for its work with young children and their families. In 2005, the state Commission on Fatherhood cited the organization as an outstanding parent-friendly small business.

The Akana project is the largest for the four-year-old "Extreme Makeover" show.

The show originally planned to renovate the Akanas' five-bedroom home at 3030 Kalihi St., but show producers shelved the idea because of time constraints and logistical problems with the small property.

Instead, the show's production team decided to build a new four-bedroom, plantation-style home and 4,500-square-foot community center on the same three-acre lot at 3135 Kalihi St., which Keiki O Ka 'Aina bought in December 2006 for $2.7 million.

Theresa Akana will live in the new house with her husband and her four children: 14-year-old Keahi, 12-year-old Kuulei, 8-year-old Maka and 2-month-old Poli. She married Benjamin Akana last year.

The Akanas do not own their new residence but are leasing it from Keiki O Ka 'Aina, said Naone.

Naone said the details of the lease are confidential at the request of the show. She added that Akana and Keiki O Ka 'Aina had no role in setting up the lease agreement, which was done by the show's staff.

Akana said she plans to turn her old house into a transitional center for women getting out of prison.

When asked why the nonprofit couldn't take out a loan to fix Akana's original home, Naone said resources at Keiki O Ka 'Aina are already stretched thin.

Nearly all of the $2.2 million in annual government grants and public contributions that the organization receives goes into program services, she said.

State land records show that Akana purchased her 3030 Kalihi St. home with former husband Robert Durand in 1995 for $255,018. County tax records currently value the old home at about $719,000.

THE NOMINATION PROCESS

Naone said a staffer and not Akana initially nominated the nonprofit organization for the makeover when the TV show began advertising for candidates in February. The show later told the organization that it only accepts nominations for families, prompting the group to nominate the Akana family.

The show informed the Akana family of their selection on June 6.

Cramsey, the executive producer of "Extreme Makeover," said her show receives about 5,000 applicants for each of its weekly episodes and complaints about neediness often come up.

For instance, a Douglas, Kan., couple featured in a 2005 episode was the subject of an article by the Wichita Eagle newspaper, which found that the couple owned a second investment property valued at more than $200,000.

The couple, Kevin and Cathy Nutsch, whose home was destroyed when a propane tank exploded, received a 3,800-square foot home, a new truck and college scholarships for five of their children, thanks to the show.

When told of the Akana family's income, several people who worked on the project said they still would have volunteered.

Lisa Ishikawa, who provided food and water at the construction site, said she believes Akana is deserving because she has contributed so much to the community.

"She is doing it for a good cause," said Ishikawa, an administrative assistant for Sutton Construction Co., which worked on the project. "She's making good money, but she uses it for other causes, not only herself. I'm sure she could have used the money for herself, you know?"

Michelle Kanehe, who helped clear debris and clean the house before its unveiling, said her view of the Akanas doesn't change just because she earns over $100,000 a year.

"(From) just meeting the family and from what other community members and neighbors have said, they seem like a good choice," said Kanehe, who is a manager at Doggie Day Care and Spa in Honolulu.

"I was part of the project because I enjoyed the show and because it will help the community."

Reach Rick Daysog at rdaysog@honoluluadvertiser.com.