Spreading aloha to visitors in trouble
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
Single dad Michael Archer flew to Honolulu in March with his two daughters, ages 6 and 15, for a spring break vacation. After he collapsed suddenly in their hotel room, the girls ended up in protective custody, and the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii went to work.
Honolulu police called brother Keith Archer in their hometown in the Chicago area to tell him that his brother was critically ill. And they called his brother's ex-wife, who shared custody of 6-year-old Brianna. The family members flew to Hawai'i and got help from the visitor assistance group — VASH.
Keith Archer said his brother's condition deteriorated: "He was in a coma. It was very bad." The ordeal got worse when the state social worker told him that 15-year-old Miranda would remain in protective custody for one more night because it was too late in the day to reunite her with them without the proper paperwork.
Archer, in a telephone interview, said VASH and Honolulu police helped guide them through the trauma and bureaucracy.
"I cannot say enough about what they did," Archer said. "They just opened their hearts and their arms to total strangers."
"They even arranged a memorial service for my brother at one of the piers on the ocean," complete with someone playing the guitar, police and hotel officials, Archer said. "It was just unbelievable."
His nieces are doing OK since their dad's death and have even started talking about a return trip to Hawai'i. Archer said that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Rich, the volunteers and police. "If it wasn't for them, I would never want to go back," he said.
The nonprofit Visitor Aloha Society was founded in 1997 by the Honolulu Rotary Club. In nearly a decade, it has helped thousands of tourists deal with emergencies and built up goodwill and testimonials from many visitors.
The society — with branches on the Neighbor Islands — operates with consistent and increasing funding from the Hawai'i Tourism Authority. This year the O'ahu budget is $240,000. But the society thrives through the strong support of the visitor industry with in-kind donations of hotel rooms, meals, transportation, private donations and hours of volunteer time.
John and Karen Streich and then-12-year-old daughter Ashley were visiting O'ahu in April 2005 when John and Ashley decided to try a scenic flight in a glider. The glider crashed, killing the pilot and injuring the Streichs.
John, whose family lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., said the VASH folks got in touch with his wife and drove her to the hospital. As the days passed, he said Rich and the others were there to help "with whatever we needed," from transportation to picking up prescriptions.
After the two got better, they coordinated a little birthday party for Ashley at Planet Hollywood Waikiki. "It was just marvelous," John said. "Anything to just brighten your spirits and to take a bad situation and make it better.
'PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE'
John said the family has been visiting the Islands regularly for nearly 20 years but hadn't heard of VASH until they needed help.
"It's not a big bureaucracy, it's just people helping people," he said. The Streichs will be back on a return trip later this year. "We're going to be there in November and enjoy Hawai'i."
Muriel Anderson, vice president of product development for the HTA, said other communities have visitor aid groups, but VASH was started in Honolulu to help crime victims far from home.
"They tried to set up their own structure based on the aloha values of the community," she said, and the idea broadened and spread over the years. "They've become victims of their own success," she said.
HTA's Larraine Koike said visitor reaction to the program is strong and supportive. She said the program has become a model for other communities and has consistently helped in thousands of cases.
Koike said that those helped often call or write asking: "How can we start something like this in our town?"
On O'ahu, the society president and executive director is Jessica Lani Rich, who routinely pitches in to assist visitors herself with everything from memorial services for murder victims to birthday parties and even a case of 800 stolen bikinis.
Rich, who just marked three years with the organization, said they have started to count the cases by the number of people helped as a more accurate measure.
The visitor program helps people who have a round-trip ticket back to their home, Rich said. For the first three months of this year, they assisted 452 visitors.
Rich said the most common complaints are car break-ins, but cases like the Archers are becoming more common with single parents traveling with children.
"I dealt with the two children who were stranded at the hotel," Rich said. "He left two grieving children and it was one of the hardest things I've seen."
COMPELLED TO HELP
Dell Manini works full time for the city Department of Community Services as a case manager/teacher for at-risk youth. At nearly 51, she's gone back to college, too. And she volunteers for VASH several times a month.
She got involved after news broke about Marine Cpl. Quentin Gwynn and his girlfriend Heather Lenhart vacationing in Hawai'i at Waimea Bay. Gwynn rushed to help a teen boy pulled unconscious from the water.
After the boy was stable, Gwynn realized that Lenhart's backpack with all their money, credit cards and video camera had been stolen.
Manini, who lives in Wai'anae Valley, said she called, sent a donation but had to do more, so she signed up as a volunteer. "Wow, this guy saved one of our people and one of our people ripped him off," she said.
More than three years later, she's still helping, sometimes handling four or five cases a month.
"Why? For me, it's to show people that come here, that not everybody is like that," Manini said. "I would want someone to at least try to comfort me. Just be there to hear me out."
One of her cases that stands out is a couple who had stopped on O'ahu after a month in the Philippines doing missionary work.
"They went to the beach for a last dip in the ocean on the Wai'anae Coast, and parked right under a 'do not leave valuables in the car' sign," she said. When the car was stolen, they were shocked and shaken and lost cell phones, luggage, money, credit cards, a laptop with research work and gifts to take back home.
She said the society helped arrange for them to shop for clothes at Ross, obtain phone cards and more. Manini even drove them around back roads to try to find the stolen rental car.
Manini said she feels for the victims: "They think this is paradise and nothing bad happens. We tell them this is a big city and things like this can happen."
In this case, the couple pushed on through the frustration, but broke down when she said good-bye at the airport, telling her: "If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't have met you."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.