Members of the Master's Touch hula troupe include, front, Chie Watanabe, left, Noriko Unten, Etsuko Oshiro and Ethel Kubo; and back, Ririko Iizuka, left, Danette Poole and Audrey Mizushima. Members not pictured are Liane Pang and Hae Okimoto.
Going beyond bars
Women from Hawaii imprisoned in Kentucky are overjoyed when isle musicians and dancers visit
The pangs of homesick Hawaii women inmates in a remote Kentucky prison turned into tears of joy and laughter when an Olivet Baptist Church hula group brought music, gifts and prayers last week.
The Master's Touch hula group made the long, winding journey to the isolated Otter Creek Women's Correctional Center in Wheelwright, Ky., July 16-17.
The troupe was accompanied by award-winning Christian singers Randy and Gay Hongo, said Danette Kong Poole, dancer and tour coordinator.
They also brought enough flowers and goodies -- 29 boxes -- for all 750 prisoners and staff members.
The visit was an answer to the prayers of Eileen Mullins, founder and director of the Haven of Rest Family Ministries Inc., and others who had been visiting the inmates as part of the Hearts of Hope Bible ministry.
"The ladies from Hawaii ... seemed so burdened and sad. Each Thursday as we left the prison, we could cry out to God for the Hawaii women that God would do something special to cheer them up," Mullins said.
When the hula group and the Hongos finally arrived, "I've never seen such laughter and tears" among the Hawaiian inmates, she said.
Poole said, "People kept telling us they had no visitors. If anyone had visitors, they were very few and far between. ... They are really, really out in the boonies."
The drive from the airport to the prison alone is 4 1/2 hours, and collect calls to Hawaii are about 60 cents a minute.
"It (their visit) was such an exhilarating experience -- just amazing! We just broke down in tears," she added.
Chie Watanabe, left, Karin Matsushita and Ethel Kubo are shown in an Easter Sunday performance.
Master's Touch devoted the second day to visiting privately with the 175 prisoners from Hawaii, who were transferred there in September 2005, Poole said. It was she who first heard of the plight of the prisoners on a television newscast, and unknotted the tangle of red tape to get permission to entertain at Otter Creek.
Their visit was part of a string of Hawaiian and gospel music concerts the Hongos and the nine-member hula group are presenting through July 30 in Kentucky and Illinois, said Ethel Kubo, the group's hula teacher and leader.
Kubo repeatedly marveled at the way their tour "snowballed into this huge mission." She said the contributions donated by so many people, businesses and organizations have been phenomenal.
Grace Efurd, a member of Mililani Baptist Church, organized a team to bake more than 6,000 cookies but "made most of them herself!" Kubo said. "She ended up smelling like a chocolate chip cookie all the time."
Poole said the prisoners and staff were thrilled to receive fresh dendrobium orchids. The group also brought Hawaiian music CDs and DVDs for the prison library; letters of encouragement from Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the state Office of the Hawaiian Affairs and church members; and mochi crunch, li hing mango and macadamia nuts for a taste of home, she added.
There were more tears and hugs when they presented 40 pa'u skirts to replace the skirts made from sheets the prisoners used to dance in, Poole said. Kumu hula Michael Casupang and others donated about 25 of the colorful fabric skirts, and Kubo "personally sewed 11 additional skirts," she added.
Kumu hula Ilima Stern taught Master's Touch a chant and kahiko hula, written especially for the inmates at Otter Creek and the Women's Correctional Center in Kailua, she said.
Poole said the group made the journey "to make sure the women know that they are loved and cared about, and hope that in some small way it can make a difference in their lives."
Louise Kim McCoy, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said, "We think it's wonderful these organizations are taking the time to go. We'll do whatever we can to help facilitate their going."
Each request, including visits from family and friends, will be reviewed on "a case-by-case basis. ... Security still has to be paramount," she added.
"We will be the first to say that family support is crucially important to the success of inmates as they approach reintegration, regardless of where they are incarcerated. Any time they have visitors -- that's a plus," she said.