Every December, I enjoy reading New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof’s annual holiday gift guide called “Gifts With Meaning.”

In the column, Kristof suggests that instead of giving a sweater or a scarf to consider making a donation to a charity dedicated to improving the world, especially a non-profit whose good works may be relatively unknown.

Kristof’s column highlights some non-profits you may never have heard of that reach out across the globe to help individuals struggling to have better lives. 

 I am replicating Kristof’s charitable idea here by offering my own suggestions for “Gifts with Meaning “ with a Hawaii twist. Here are a few successful, low-key charities on Oahu in need of support as they quietly go about their business of alleviating misery and opening up life’s possibilities.

Needy men are outfitted with clothing at River of Life Mission in Chinatown.
Needy men are outfitted with clothing at River of Life Mission in Chinatown. Courtesy of River of Life Mission Social Services

New Clothes Can Make A Difference

Instead of giving your uncle an aloha shirt you might consider a donation to River of Life Mission for new underpants, socks or slippers to help the 350 adult males who come to the mission’s Chinatown building for showers a couple of times a week.

River of Life general manager Merrie Susan Marchant says most people look forward to a change of underwear after showering, but something that basic can be difficult for a person living on the streets, trying to wash clothes in a restroom sink and drying them on the branches of trees.

River of Life is best known for its meal service, churning out 15,000 free meals a month to the hungry, but by providing a change of clothing, it is also offering its homeless clients human dignity.  Even a donation of $10 will help the mission buy underwear, socks, slippers and tennis shoes.

Donations can be made through the website www.riveroflifemission.com or by calling Marchant at 524-7656.

Mary Sox Pollard and Terry Ogawa of Family Promise Hawaii set up bedding for homeless people who slept at the Church of the Crossroads.
Mary Sox Pollard and Terry Ogawa of Family Promise Hawaii set up bedding for homeless people who slept at the Church of the Crossroads. Courtesy of Family Promise Hawaii

Partnering With Churches

In the past, I have written about Family Promise of Hawaii, a little known charity I greatly admire for its use of existing resources to help hundreds of homeless families find housing and a way to independent living.

Family Promise says a donation of $20 would help it buy the supplies of daily living such as children’s diapers, pillows, disinfectant wipes, shampoo and soap for the homeless parents and children it protects and educates.

Family Promise has partnered with more than 60 churches in Honolulu and Windward Oahu to provide shelter for the homeless families in the churches facilities on a rotating basis as the families seek apartments to rent.

Churches sign up to host three to four homeless families with children to live at their church for a week. Church members provide the homeless guests with bedding and a safe place to sleep in the church as well as a hot breakfast, a packed lunch and a hot dinner each day.

During the day, homeless guests are taken in a van to one of Family Promise’s two family centers where there is childcare, and for the adults counseling on finding jobs and housing. Each night, the families are driven back to the churches.

To be eligible, the homeless adults must already have jobs or be looking for work. And be flexible because they will be moving to a different church every week.

Family Promise program manager Christy MacPherson says, “Every dollar counts because we run on a small budget.” 

Since it started in 2006, Family Promise has helped 923 homeless adults who, after living under the protection of church halls, were eventually able to find permanent housing.

We may soon elect a woman president of the United States, but many women across the country and here in Hawaii are still living in poverty, barely able to pay for food, medicine and shelter.

Helping Women And Girls In Need

The Women’s Fund of Hawaii is a little known but tightly focused charity with one goal: to help women and girls.

Donations to the Women’s Fund help the organization give grants of $2,500 to $5,000 to small, innovative organizations that help women in unexpectedly powerful ways.

For example, the Women’s Fund gave a grant this year to an organization called Signs of Self. Signs of Self will use the funding to train three to five deaf, hard of hearing, and sign-fluent women as peer advocates/empowerment directors to women and girls with hearing loss who are experiencing or have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence.

Another grant was given to a charity called Women in Need — $5,000 — to help women who are getting out of prison pay for transitional housing as they move back into the community. It is a worthy goal to help former inmates re-enter society with some of their basic needs met so they are not compelled to return to lives of crime.

Some of the other ways the Women’s Fund helps are very touching. In the past it has given grants to buy bus passes for elderly homeless women to help them become more mobile and less isolated. It has also offered provided bus passes to former women inmates and battered women to help them move out of bad situations into better lives.

Last year the Women’s Fund gave nearly $70,000 in grants to 15 non-profits — many of them organizations overlooked by larger funders.

Dean Wilhelm, second from left, with students from Castle High School preparing a taro lo'i in the Hookuaaina program.
Dean Wilhelm, second from left, with students from Castle High School preparing a taro lo’i in the Hookuaaina program. Courtesy of Michele Wilhelm

Outdoor Outreach For Teens

All of us want to help Hawaii’s children stay in school to make the most of their lives, but for some teenagers with stressful family and personal circumstances, it is often easier to drop out.

Two charities you might not have heard of that are doing a lot to keep teenagers motivated and interested in continuing their education are Kupu and Hookuaaina. Both work with at-risk children out of doors, and interestingly, often in the mud.

Hookuaaina operates a mentoring program for at-risk youth who are having difficulty graduating from high school or who have already been in trouble with the law. Dean Wilhelm takes 20 young people ages 12-18 into the nine-month program each year. 

By working with them in his foundation’s taro fields, he teaches them work skills, resource management and polite behavior. There is something magical about getting down together in the mud to raise a treasured crop that makes the kids pull together to see better lives ahead for themselves. 

Wilhelm understands how to gain the trust of troubled children from his previous job as a teacher at the state’s youth correctional facility in Kailua.

His wife, Michele Wilhelm, says many of the formerly at-risk youth working in Hookuaaina’s taro lo’i have gone on to graduate from high school. And some have come back to the fields to help other at-risk children.

Hookuaaina also opens its taro fields for visits by hundreds of schoolchildren, churches and community organization.

Students involved in Kupu’s Community U program work on a taro lo’i.
Students involved in Kupu’s Community U program work on a taro lo’i. Courtesy of Kupu

Kupu is another organization that has turned around the lives of many wayward Oahu youths by working with them outside and often in the mud. Its program called Community U takes in young people ages 16-24, many of whom are failing in school, and transforms them into energetic, productive community members.

“We give them an opportunity to thrive in areas they have not thrived in before. Many of them were considered incompetent in the traditional school setting. But by participating in hands-on work and being part of teams, we have seen their potential unlocked, “ says John Leong, Kupu’s executive director.

The young people, some of whom are from homeless families in Kakaako, some from the Youth Correctional Facility, learn real job skills while they work to protect the environment by planting native plants, cleaning Hawaiian fishponds and caring for taro lo’i.

They also work to get their high school degrees through the McKinley High School adult education program.

In a two-year study done of the success rate of Community U, of the 81 percent who started the program unemployed, 71 percent were employed by the time they finished.

 “It is really something to see how they have transformed their lives,” says Leong.

Project Dana volunteer Honest Uyeno takes avid reader Betty Culross, 81, to the library.
Project Dana volunteer Honest Uyeno takes avid reader Betty Culross, 81, to the library. 

Helping Homebound Seniors

Hawaii has the fastest growing elderly population in the country. Many of our frail elderly are struggling with loneliness, isolation and boredom as they try to retain their independence by living in their own homes instead of care facilities.

Project Dana is a charity that does enormous good by training more than 850 volunteers to reach out to the homebound seniors by assisting them with the daily chores of life such as driving the seniors to their medical appointments or helping with their grocery shopping, home repairs and light housekeeping.

Poject Dana volunteer Harold Kuwahara helps Ann Shiroma, 91, buckle up before he drives her to her medical appointments and grocery shopping.
Poject Dana volunteer Harold Kuwahara helps Ann Shiroma, 91, buckle up before he drives her to her medical appointments and grocery shopping. Courtesy of Project Dana

Most importantly, the volunteers help alleviate the elderly homebound seniors’ isolation by setting up telephone chats with them or dropping by to visit them in their homes.

The word dana in Project Dana is a Sanskrit word meaning selfless giving.

Project Dana is supported by an interfaith coalition of 32 churches, temples and community groups. Its volunteers help about 1,000 homebound seniors a year.

“Our volunteers’ one-to-one visits can lead to very warm loving relationships to ease the elderly out of their loneliness and isolation,” says Rose Nakamura, the co-founder of the project.

Donations to Project Dana can be made by sending a check to Project Dana, 2720 Nakookoo St., Honolulu, HI 96826, or by calling Nakamura at 945-3736 to arrange to drop off donations of blankets, toiletries or other items to make a homebound elderly person’s life easier.

So when you are thinking about buying a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine for a friend, maybe this year you can offer something more lasting, a gift with meaning to bring comfort and to maybe even change a life.  

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