A Honolulu nonprofit that began as an outreach to homeless families 14 years ago is addressing three critical community challenges: helping at-risk residents to live independently, creating markets for locally grown food products, and building its own revenue streams to ensure its financial future.
It doing so, it has become an award-winning model for other nonprofits to emulate.
Touch A Heart Hawaii’s three-pronged approach to social and economic issues is working. It trains adults with troubled pasts for jobs in the food industry. It’s finding new and creative uses for locally grown foods. And its catering service is generating income from both nonprofit and for-profit sources.
Its business plan received a prestigious award this year when it was named winner of the Chaminade University 2018 Hogan and American Savings Bank Nonprofit Business Plan Competition, finishing first among 52 entries.
Judges agreed that Touch A Heart’s plan best reflected the Hogan Entrepreneurs Program’s motto: “Doing business things that make social sense. Doing social things that make business sense.”
(In the interest of transparency, I was among eight members of the community who judged the eight finalists and awarded the top prize to Touch A Heart.)
Touch A Heart has evolved since Colin and Robin Kumabe began providing meals to homeless families at Blaisdell Park, Waianae Boat Harbor and Kumuhonua Shelter in 2004. Colin is a veteran of Hawaii’s food service industry, including 25 years in management with Zippy’s. Robin’s specialty is brand strategy.
Colin says that, in addition to meals, the husband-wife team provided emergency care, bus passes and help for those wishing to become high school graduates through the GED program.
By 2012, the program had expanded to six days a week with other community groups providing funding and volunteer manpower. But, as Colin describes it using a familiar adage, the mission was still directed more to “giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day” than to “teaching him to fish and feeding him for life.” They realized that developing job skills was critical to helping the homeless become self-sufficient.
By 2015, the Kumabes had developed a new business plan that involved partnering with organizations with underutilized commercial kitchens to create a for-profit food service business. The kitchens also would be training sites for paid interns in need of marketable job skills.
The Salvation Army’s Family Treatment Services became the pilot program, using the organization’s kitchens. Women in its substance abuse recovery program became the first interns and 14 were trained for jobs in the food service industry.
Last year, Touch A Heart moved its operations to the Central Union Church campus on Beretania Street, hired Chad Haruguchi as its chef and trainer, and expanded its pool of interns to include women at YWCA Fernhurst who were transitioning from prison, as well as men in the Salvation Army’s addiction treatment program. A state grant enabled the Kumabes to hire Jamie Goya as program director.
Touch A Heart operates on an annual budget of about $428,000, including the food service component. Government grants account for about half of its income, with government contracts and private donations each providing about a fifth. The catering business generates about 8 percent of the revenue.
Since 2015, Touch A Heart has graduated 28 interns from its culinary skills and job training program. Four men and four women are scheduled to graduate in July and up to 10 more interns will join the new class this summer. Robin estimates the program’s success rate at about 75 percent in terms of placing graduates in the work force and having them remain there.
During a visit to the church kitchens on a recent morning, I met the women interns who were preparing packaged lunches for the Waikiki Parc Hotel under the direction of Chef Haruguchi. Upon graduation, they will have completed 12 weeks of training at 12 hours per week and earned the minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.
The men who train as interns work the afternoon shift, also under Haruguchi’s direction.
The Waikiki Parc is currently the catering program’s second largest weekly customer. Its main customer is Central Union Church, which gets catered food for its church services and youth and children’s ministries. The Salvation Army and Kalihi Union Church are among its other regular customers.
Touch A Heart also is expanding its reach to retail customers. It provides bakery items to Lion Coffee Cafe, Friend Cafe and some blind vendors. It supplies ulu ice cream to Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha.
Robin Kumabe sees ulu (breadfruit) as a key ingredient in expanding the use of locally grown foods into its product mix. To that end, Pono Shim, president and CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board, donated his ulu ice cream recipe and La Gelateria is producing the ice cream. Other products such as pancake mix are using ulu as their primary ingredient.
“It was my desire to create and market unique products to help fund our organization, possibly create jobs for our interns, and promote local farm-to-table products that we could sell to visitors to promote Hawaii,” Robin told me. “This then led to looking for other locally grown and processed products to use.”
She said she’s currently getting poi from HPC Foods and kiawe flour from ‘Ai Pohaku.
As Touch A Heart grows as a social service nonprofit and a food service business, Colin has not forgotten where it all began. He still visits the parks on Sunday, keeping in touch with Oahu’s homeless community. And he is disturbed by what he sees. Where he once saw mainly drug addicts and the mentally ill, he now sees more multigenerational families living in primitive conditions.
“Life transforms people,” he said. “Many have been beaten down; their spirit can easily be dashed. How do you break the chain?”
It begins, he says, by touching people “one heart at a time.” That’s why organizations such as Touch A Heart are the key to breaking the chain of homelessness and despair.
“We help them to start dreaming again,” he says. “We give them the grace to build themselves up.”