|Help our neighbors in need|
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
HALAWA — Just like every Tuesday, Wellspring Covenant Church was filled yesterday with racks of donated business clothes for former Aloha Airlines employees needing outfits for job interviews, diapers for their children and donated food piled on tables.
People dealing with personal and financial stress received free massages and haircuts. And in a corner, Scott Morishige — program manager of Helping Hands Hawai'i's Community Clearinghouse — nudged many of them to apply for financial help ranging from medical bills to a couple of tanks worth of gas.
Wendy Nakamura worked for Aloha for 21 years — 19 as a flight attendant — and, like many former colleagues, is emptying her savings account to bridge the gap between bills and unemployment checks.
Nakamura, 43, a single mother of a 15-year-old son, finds herself about $1,000 short each month but only asked Morishige for help with her $130 monthly Hawaiian Electric Co. bill.
"I feel bad," she said. "There are plenty people who need it more than me. Other people have it way worse."
It's a story that Morishige often hears: former Aloha employees who are more comfortable helping customers than asking for help themselves.
But he continues to drive a new initiative by Helping Hands Hawai'i, The Honolulu Advertiser, KGMB9 and First Hawaiian Bank. The Neighbors in Need program helps the 1,900 former Aloha Airline employees who lost their jobs on March 31, along with laid-off workers from Molokai Ranch, ATA and Weyerhaeuser Co., and anyone else who recently lost a job.
Morishige found a welcome home at Wellspring Covenant Church, which turns itself over every Tuesday to former Aloha Airlines employees trying to rebound from one of the worst mass layoffs in Island history.
"I get fed each time I come here," said Crissie Gilkey, 50, who spent 30 years as an Aloha flight attendant. "I've gotten business suits, gas cards, food cards and food to take home. And it's a great place where we can come together and share our ups and downs."
The Tuesday gatherings were started by former Aloha flight attendant Valerie Sugawa and her husband, David, who belong to the church and who also created a Web site — sharealoha hawaii.org — to collect donated goods and services for Valerie's former colleagues.
"It started out with me just wanting to give haircuts," said Valerie Sugawa, who left Aloha last year. "Then it just grew and grew."
After more than two months, Sugawa still sees plenty of people struggling to adjust to life without Aloha.
"Everybody who comes in to that door for the first time is probably still hurting, or depressed or it may be the first time out of the house," she said. "We have to be sensitive to that. Everybody heals differently."
Along with donated baby formula, playrooms for children and services like resume writing, out-of-work Aloha employees can get 25-minute foot or back massages from volunteers like Chad Imano, a Wellspring member who gives up his Tuesdays working as a financial manager.
More than two months after Aloha terminated its passenger service, Imano gives massages to many still struggling with grief.
"The realization that it's really over is still hard for them to process," he said.
Ryan Arasato, another church member, gave foot massages, in part, because he could easily see himself in the same situation.
"I know how it feels not to have a job," Arasato said. "This is my way of making them feel good."
Gilkey's 1998 Honda Accord recently needed a full set of brakes and other repairs. The price of gas is killing her shrunken budget as she drives from her rented home in Kahalu'u to get computer training and other job skills in town.
And Gilkey no longer can afford medical insurance as a single parent of a teenager, "which is very scary," she said.
"With a 16-year-old boy, anything can happen," Gilkey said. "It makes me feel very insecure not being able to afford medical coverage."
The former Aloha Airlines employees are nearly halfway through their 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and Morishige knows whatever savings that remain are running out.
"I don't think panic has set in yet," he said. "When their unemployment runs out, that's when things are going to get really bad."
But at least on Tuesdays, Morishige said, the former colleagues can find strength together.
"Here," he said, looking around the church's sanctuary, "Val and the others have turned a negative into a positive."
Reach Dan Nakaso at firstname.lastname@example.org.