The lives of more than 30,000 Hawaii residents will be touched this year by a nonprofit that traces its history back to World War II.

Many are mentally ill, or homeless, or addicted to alcohol or drugs, or a combination of all three. Others seek help from someone who speaks their native language. Still others need emergency financial assistance or basic necessities such as bedding and clothing.

“I like the fact that we’re so broad,” President and CEO Jan Harada says of the many programs offered by Helping Hands Hawaii.

The nonprofit has operated as Helping Hands Hawaii since 1974. But its roots go back to 1941 when the Volunteer Placement Bureau was formed to help the poor, homeless and immigrants to the Islands.

Today, it operates on a $4 million annual budget with 34 full-time employees, three part-timers, and 50 on-call employees, all but one of them language interpreters. Approximately half of its operating revenue comes from government grants, about a third from fee for services, and the rest from private grants and donations. It has a 12-member board of directors and, like most nonprofits, a loyal corps of volunteers.

Its budget has shrunk by more than $1 million over the past few years as it becomes more selective about which grants to pursue.

“I’ve never been a big believer in growing just to grow,” Harada told me.

Its big warehouse along Nimitz Highway might suggest that Helping Hands Hawaii exists primarily as a community clearinghouse. That is among its core programs as its works with more than 150 partner agencies to provide clothing, supplies and household goods free of charge to people who meet income standards.

But that’s only part of its mission. Like other nonprofits, it operates a variety of social service programs that remain out of view of most local residents.

Helping the mentally ill is one such program. Case managers work with hundreds of clients to help them find housing, control their medications, show up for appointments on time, manage their benefits, and strive to get well. Managers and clients meet on the street, or in a care home, or occasionally in a fast-food restaurant.

“We meet them where it’s most convenient and comfortable for them,” Harada said.

Behavioral health has been one of Helping Hands Hawaii’s most important missions for the past 20 years, also its most challenging. Mental health case workers work under financial restrictions dating back a half-century – an epic story of failed public policy.

Before the middle of the 20th century, the mentally ill who could not afford expensive private treatment had been forced into institutions that often were little more than human warehouses. In the 1960s, with the advent of new medications, efforts began to deinstitutionalize patients and shift financial responsibility to the federal government. But the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was never adequately funded, and money for food, housing, clothing and psychiatric treatment never made it into the local communities. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 established block grants to the states but cut federal spending by 30 percent.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008 when more than $4 billion in public mental health funding was eliminated nationwide, turning jails, prisons and nursing homes into warehouses for the mentally ill.

“Mental health took deep cuts in 2008 across the nation and in Hawaii,” Harada said. “And it never came back.”

For example, deep funding cuts reduced the time spent with some Hawaii clients from 3.5 hours a week to 3.5 hours a month.

While behavioral health therapy requires long-term relationships with seriously ill clients, another core program offers fast response to financial emergencies. The emergency assistance program helps Hawaii residents who, for example, might be teetering on the edge of homelessness due to unexpected circumstances.

Harada shared these stories:

A man who was moving in and out of homelessness needed dentures. Public assistance paid for having his teeth pulled, but then denied him money for the dentures.

“He didn’t feel he could smile,” Harada said. “He couldn’t eat. His whole outlook on life changed.”

Helping Hands Hawaii found money for the dentures.

“The day he put his new dentures in, he had the biggest smile on his face,” Harada recalls.

Not every story involves people living in poverty. A Maui resident, a single mother with a good job, learned that her child was ill and needed to relocate to Oahu for extended treatment. She quit her job, moved to Honolulu, and risked losing her home as she watched her savings evaporate.

Helping Hands Hawaii helped pay her back rent on Maui, find housing on Oahu, and cover that expensive security deposit, keeping her from falling into poverty.

Harada says that, unlike many of its clients, Helping Hands Hawaii wants those receiving emergency financial assistance to be one-time cases.

“We never want to see them again,” she said, “because that means that we didn’t do something right.”

Helping Hands Hawaii operates more than a half-dozen programs, including statewide coordination of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the state Department of Human Services and Neighbor Island programs in coordination with Catholic Charities Hawaii, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and Hawaiian Community Assets.

But one of its most intriguing is its 23-year-old Bilingual Access Line, where 49 on-call interpreters help thousands of clients annually in 19 different languages.

Harada shared this example of how the access line operates:

First, imagine how you would feel to learn from your physician that you have cancer. Then imagine that Korean is your native language and the doctor is describing a complicated diagnosis in English. That happened to a Hawaii resident who contacted Helping Hands Hawaii for help.

The woman had taken a bus to the doctor’s office, only to learn the bad news. The interpreter sat with her, explaining the diagnosis and reviewing her options in a language she could understand. Then, to help calm the patient who was about to take a bus home, the interpreter called for a taxi with a Korean-speaking driver – a small gesture but an important one in that situation.

Interestingly, Korean is among the 10 most-requested languages; the others are Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Japanese, Ilocano, Tagalog, Spanish, Marshallese and Chuukese.

Nonprofit work was not top of mind to Harada when the Punahou School graduate went on to the University of Oregon to earn her undergraduate and law degrees. She returned home and passed the Hawaii Bar but decided not to practice law. Instead, she went to work for the state Department of Health and then joined the nonprofit community as executive director of Palama Settlement. She recently observed her eighth anniversary as head of Helping Hands Hawaii.

I asked Harada what it will take to solve the many social service problems that she and her staff deal with every day.

“It will take the whole community and more collaboration among nonprofits and agencies, behaving as strategic partners rather than fighting to protect one’s territory,” she said. “We need to see ourselves as partners with our clients instead of just vendors.

“We need to do more in prevention, helping those who are at risk of falling into homelessness. We need to send consistent messages. Don’t give up on those who reject offers of shelter. One homeless man agreed to move into a shelter after about 40 visits from our case managers. When we asked him why, he replied: ‘You guys kept coming back.’

“Complex problems require complex solutions,” Harada said. “We start with compassion for each other. That person is not just a number. He or she wasn’t born to be homeless. If we can’t see ourselves in them, we won’t address the challenge. They could be us.”

I asked her if there is hope that Hawaii’s problems can be solved.

“There’s always hope,” she said. “Good people are working on it.”

To learn more about Helping Hands Hawaii, contact President and CEO Jan Harada at

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at

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