HAWAII AT WORK
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kekela "Kela" Miller is the face of the company for Hawaii Reserves Inc. in Laie since she's the first person people see or talk to on the phone if they have any questions about their service. Above, Miller visited in her office last week with Natalie Crismon and her 3-year-old daughter, Keili, who has a sister due in five weeks. Natalie had dropped by to pay a bill and ask a question concerning her residence.
‘The light that shines beyond’
Kekela "Kela" Miller is the person in Laie whom Hawaii Reserves customers call on when they need help
FULL DISCLOSURE: Kekela "Kela" Miller was a name from the past for me when an acquaintance at a local public relations firm suggested that I interview Miller about her job. There had been a woman with the same name working at Kahuku Hospital when my two children were born there more than 20 years ago, and her name, in fact, was the inspiration for my son's name. But I hadn't seen her since then and I wondered if she might be the same Kekela Miller as the one being recommended, who, moreover, works as the customer service representative for Hawaii Reserves Inc. in Laie, right next to Kahuku. The company manages about 7,000 acres of property in the area for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the community's water and sewer companies, the Laie Shopping Center, and various other commercial, residential and agricultural properties. Working out of the shopping center, Miller is the company's face to the community because she is the first person its customers see or talk to on the phone when they have questions or comments about their service. Miller, 61, is a fifth-generation resident of Laie, a kumu hula, and a graduate of Kahuku High School. ("A Red Raider for life, that's me," she said last week.) She has been married 43 years to Martin Miller Jr., with whom she has five children and 19 grandchildren.
Kekela "Kela" Miller
Title: Customer service representative
Job: Helps customers of Hawaii Reserves Inc. who have questions about their service
Are you the same Kekela Miller that used to work at Kahuku Hospital back in the late '70s?
Answer: I sure am.
Q: That's what I thought. I remember you working there because my son was born there and you helped me pick a Hawaiian name for him, which in the end, after I consulted with a kupuna friend of mine, Ruby Johnson, turned out to be your name: Kekela.
A: Oh my gosh. So you checked with Mrs. Johnson?
A: It's funny because I didn't name any of my own children after my name. The name is not a common name. I was told that by Mary Kawena Pukui (co-author of "Hawaiian Dictionary"). She told me, "Your grandma has a very special name." And she told me it meant "a light that shines beyond," and you become a light that shines to many.
Q: You were named after your grandma?
A: Yes. So how old is your son now?
Q: He's 28.
A: Oh my gosh. I can't believe the years went by that fast.
Q: Remember Dr. (Benjamin) Branch, the doctor who delivered my son? (Dr. Branch died in 1998, at age 66.)
A: Yes. In fact, I worked for Dr. Branch (at Kahuku Clinic) before I came to the hospital.
Q: What was your job at the hospital back then?
A: I was in the business office, the emergency room -- we wore hats around and about. But Kahuku gave me my first opportunity to know that I could work in an office, because most of my life I was dancing.
So I got to where I was sent to school by Kahuku, and I started from there. I started from not even knowing how to do the adding machine. But it was Dr. Branch, and Pete Lakatani, the office manager, and Donna Maiava, head of nursing and CEO then of the hospital, who helped me get going. I worked with a great bunch of people at Kahuku.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kekela "Kela" Miller gave a hug last week to Katai Mariteragi, after Katai stopped by to sign up her kids for the track and field Ko'olauloa club. Since the Hawaii Reserves office is centrally located, Kela has sign-up sheets that parents use to register their kids for various sporting activities. Kela gives plenty of hugs as she knows most of the people in Laie.
What were you doing before you joined the hospital?
A: Actually, I was with the clinic for five years, and then 14 years at the hospital. But before that I was at PCC (the Polynesian Cultural Center).
Q: Is that where you were dancing?
A: Yes. In 1963 I was there, and then I left and came back in 1965. I was already married.
Q: Why did you leave?
A: I was getting tired of dancing. I was going, "Is this all I know?" And I was having my children. I thought it was time for me to go on with something else. So I went to Kahuku Clinic.
Q: How did you get that job?
A: A friend told me to apply. I said, "I don't know nothing." But she said, "Just come and apply." So I got the job being a receptionist. I started learning the medical terms, and went from there. Dr. Branch was so very patient, because he knew I knew nothing.
The point is, I learned a lot. But there was something that happened while I was there. I wrote something about a person going back to work, and I got fired over it. He had changed the date on the form I wrote.
Q: How come you got into trouble?
A: Because I signed for it. It was his word against mine. So I was made an example. But I learned: Never, never, never trust, even in your own family.
Q: That's a terrible lesson to have to learn.
A: Oh, it was. For me, it was devastating. For me, I had never done anything like that, and they made it sound so terrible. But it was a lesson learned, and that very following three months, someone in Kailua heard about me, and recommended me to be a receptionist for a medical services company.
Q: How did you end up at Hawaii Reserves Inc.?
A: What happened is the state of Hawaii had this job opening for Hawaiian program coordinator for Kahana Valley State Park. One of my friends called me and said, "Kela, go and apply. This program is so good. You'll be so good at it. It's doing programs for the Hawaiians in Kahana." I said, "Wait a minute, my family all lives there."
Q: Who hired you?
A: Alfred Rogers. He was the state park keeper at that time. So he hired me because, No. 1, I was Hawaiian; No. 2, I knew the people in Kahana; and No. 3, I was friendly, and the people would come out and listen to me whenever we had programs going. Whereas him, being a haole trying to tell these people, they would look at him and ... you know. So that's where I worked.
And that's also how I came to HRI, because the state was starting to lay off people, and I was right at the bottom of the totem pole. I worked there five years, but my status of work changed to temporary hire, and when you become temporary hire, you have no benefits. So I said, "OK, so I needed to get a new job." I didn't get a pink slip, but I had no choice but to go look.
So Dan Ditto,* the CEO for HRI at that time, he found I might be leaving state parks, so he mentioned to his human resources person that the community was saying that Kela was going to be leaving state parks and they needed someone really badly to be in front to talk to the people. They were looking for someone to be in the office to talk to people coming in to get help.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Serena Johnson-Mailau, HRI's human resource assistant, showed Miller her home on a map of the area made in 1927.
What exactly is HRI?
A: They were Zion Securities, and then they changed the name to Hawaii Reserves.
Remember, I was born here, so my family was from here, and in the past Zion Securities was not something that was looked on favorably, like they were taking away the land or something.
But anyway, Dan Ditto approached me and asked me if I would consider working here. My answer at the time was no. I was thinking of all the things that had happened to my family, and how could I work for a company that did all these things?
Q: What did happen to your family?
A: Well, they supposedly took the land and moved them around and promised them things that they didn't deliver. But, of course, I found out that wasn't true. So Dan asked me to think about it.
Then I had a dream. My grandparents (in my dream) said I needed to go work for this place -- they didn't say HRI or anything -- because my people need me to be in this position, and in this area, and I would be fulfilling some of the things that were promised to our kupuna. I had no idea what they were talking about.
Then three months went by, and Dan asked me again, and I said yes. I came in to fill out an application, did the whole works, and two months later, they called me to come in. This was in 1998, and I've been here ever since.
And working here has been wonderful -- for HRI, for our community, and having our community know that you can trust HRI.
And I'm not saying that everybody trusts them. There's still a few more people that will never trust HRI. You can't change that, but at least they're coming in and asking questions, knowing that this office is open to anyone who has questions: What happened so long ago? Why was this? Why was that?
Q: Hawaii Reserves is part of the Mormon church, right?
Q: What does it do?
A: It takes care of all the properties in the community. And it really does a whole lot for this community. I don't know of any other community that has as much as Laie does. You have the university (Brigham Young University-Hawaii), the famous Polynesian Cultural Center, the temple. ...
Q: So are you a Mormon, too?
A: Yes, I am. I always have been, because my grandparents were. When the church came into Laie, they accepted it with open arms.
Q: Why, you figure?
A: First of all is they believe in families, and in keeping families together. And they didn't tell the Hawaiians to not do the hula. I think that's why a lot of hula masters came from here. I'm not sure about that, but my great grandma was kumu hula.
Q: What's your typical day then?
A: My typical day is talking with people who have questions about their water or sewer bill, or even as simple as "Do they have baptism at the temple beach?" and I say, "Yes, they do." People can go there and get their baptism. It's open seven days a week.
Q: But it's a business office?
A: Yes, for people in Laie who have water and sewer from us, they have to come here and pay their bill. If they're leasing land from us, they have to come in and pay their bill.
Q: Do many people pay by mail?
A: Yes, but some people don't trust the mail system.
Q: So basically you're the customer relations person for the Laie water and sewer company.
A: Yes. What a dull life, yeah? (Laughter) And then on top of all of that, I'm involved with the community, I'm involved with the kupunas, and I'm a kumu hula. And then I spend time with my 19 grandchildren (by five children).
Q: How big's your halau?
A: About 30 to almost 50. And I teach from 5 years old to almost a hundred.
Q: Do you work (at HRI) with a staff?
A: Yes, and the staff is wonderful. Honestly. I've worked other places, and here everybody cares. Over the years, you hear horror stories of how the people talked down (to the customers), but now it has changed because we have a multitude of races. We have myself, we have Indians, we have Fijians, we have Tongans, Samoans, Filipinos, haoles ... so bad things might have happened in the past, but we can never go back to the past and undo what has happened, but we can become better and not let it happen again.
And HRI has grown. We have a new CEO, Eric Beaver, who also was raised in Laie, and his family goes back many generations in Hawaii, too. He's in place, I'm in place. There's a reason. For me, I know there's a reason why I came to HRI, and I can see it, even if people come to just talk story, or to complain.
Q: How big is your staff?
A: We have about 60 people.
Q: What do they do?
A: Everybody is in different departments -- the water department, the sewer department, finance ... and then we have the business office manager, and myself who does customer service. And then you have the grounds, and the property manager that takes care of this complex.
Q: What are your hours?
A: I'm here Monday to Friday, from 8:30 till 5.
Q: Do you have much paperwork?
A: Sometimes, because I take all the payments in and have to ratify the cash at the end of the day. But not that much, not like those guys in the back where they have to run reports.
But basically, the people that work here, everybody has the ability and wants to help. And we all sort of work together, from the CEO down to the janitor of this place. What's so neat about working here, too, is every Monday we have devotion.
A: Yeah, everybody comes in and somebody gets to read a scripture if they want to, or sometimes there's a poem they want to share, and it's really neat because it helps us start the week. I think every company should do that.
We do have some nonmembers (of the church) that work at HRI, and they're really cool about that, too, you know, but for me it really helps during the week.
I'm not saying this company is perfect. We have our ups and downs. But I remind everyone that we are servants to the community.
Friday, June 9, 2006
» Dan Ditto's last name was misspelled in Monday's "Hawaii at Work" interview with Kekela "Kela" Miller, customer service representative for Hawaii Reserves Inc. Ditto is a former chief executive officer of the company.