Society marks decade of giving aid to visitors
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jessica Lani Rich, president and executive director of Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, poses at her office in the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, with binders full of testimonials from grateful clients.
The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii offers support in theft, illness or other trauma
To families of victims of accidents or crimes, Jessica Lani Rich is a friendly face in an unfamiliar land.
"She was my angel," Carol Plumlee said about the president and executive director of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii-Oahu Chapter.
Last summer in a swimming hole near Princeville, Kauai, Plumlee's son Tucker complained of leg pain and sank.
He was pulled from the water and transported to Kaiser Medical Center in Moanalua, where he was placed in the intensive care unit with a spinal injury and kidney failure. Doctors later determined he had McArdle's disease, a condition that affects muscle metabolism.
Rich went to the hospital and kept in contact with Plumlee's family every day for two weeks, providing moral support until Tucker's health improved.
"There's people that come into your life when you need them so much," Carol Plumlee said by phone from Evergreen, Colo., "and they're there to watch over you and help you with a situation that you can't handle on your own."
The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii-Oahu Chapter is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Monarch Room. The society has assisted hundreds of visitors who faced adversity during their stays.
Thefts, accidents, medical emergencies and deaths are all familiar trouble to the VASH staff and volunteers.
Car break-ins make up the largest number of cases, Rich said. Summer and the holiday season are the busiest times for the organization due to the peak visitor arrivals.
Not expecting trouble, visitors often leave valuables in their cars, including gifts at Christmas, Rich said.
When Rich took over the organization 3 1/2 years ago, she started a bereavement team.
"Death or loss is actually worse when you're on vacation, because you don't expect it," she said.
Rich said she can relate.
About 30 years ago, Rich said, her father, Herman Scholtz, a former Honolulu police officer, died while he was on his honeymoon in El Salvador. His wife was struggling while swimming in the ocean, Rich said. As he assisted her toward shore, Scholtz suffered a heart attack.
His wife was able to make it out of the water safely.
"I have a lot of empathy and compassion for visitors because I know what it feels like, too," Rich said.
Including herself, Rich has two full-time staff members, eight part-time staff members and about 90 volunteers. Any visitor who has a round-trip ticket is eligible to receive assistance from VASH.
The organization primarily receives funding from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. There are four other VASH offices on the neighbor islands, but the Oahu chapter handles the largest number of visitors.
Many businesses provide in-kind donations such as hotel rooms, meals, transportation, entertainment and phone cards. They include the Hawaii Hotel & Lodging Association, Outrigger Enterprises Group, Charley's Taxi & Tours, Tiki's Bar and Grill, Lau Yee Chai Showroom and Restaurant, and ABC Stores.
In her office at the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, Rich flipped through hundreds of pages of letters thanking VASH for its assistance. Rich, who is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said she enjoys being able to help people daily.
"I get to have the privilege of helping them," she said.
"The concept of aloha is not just a word to me, it's in my heart, it's in everything I do," Rich said. "You can see it in my staff, you can see it in the volunteers."
Robert Gentry, 68, former mayor of Laguna Beach, Calif., has volunteered for the organization for the past three years.
Gentry, who splits his time between Hawaii and Rancho Mirage, Calif., describes VASH's role with victims as a "friend of the family."
He said VASH's support is one of the main reasons why visitors decide to return to Hawaii after experiencing trauma.
"There is a sigh of relief when we come on scene and express our sincere commitment to be with them through their trauma," he said.
Training session for volunteers
People interested in becoming a volunteer for the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii must be at least 18 years old, attend a three-hour training course and serve a minimum of three hours a month.
The next training session will be held Nov. 17 at the Hawaii Convention Center's Executive Board Room. Reservations are required. To download an application, go to www.visitoralohasocietyofhawaii.org. Call 926-8274 to make a reservation for the training session.
Founder’s idea thrives with community support
A Hawaii Kai man who came up with the concept of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii more than a decade ago is pleased that the organization is thriving.
"I'm proud of all the people making it happen," said Darrell Large, former president and executive director.
The idea of following up with visitors who are traumatized during their vacation started with a conversation.
During a Rotary Club of Honolulu function where some law enforcement officials were being honored, Large inquired with police whether anyone followed up with visitors who were victimized in a rash of purse-snatching incidents. To his surprise, no one had.
Large, who served as a member of the club's Random Acts of Aloha Committee, decided to forge ahead on his own first before seeking support to establish an organization.
In January 1997, Large learned that Janet and Brian Mansfield of Bath, England, were assaulted by two male teenagers during a robbery attempt at a Waimea Bay bus stop.
Large found out that Janet Mansfield suffered a stab wound to the abdomen and was taken to the Queen's Medical Center to be treated. With flowers in hand, Large found out which room she was in, introduced himself and asked how he could be of assistance.
"We became dear friends and still are," Large said.
From there, Large inquired with law enforcement and several businesses of developing an organization to provide assistance to visitors who face traumatic adversity. The support was unanimous.
Participating businesses offered hotel room space and phone cards, and restaurants offered free meals and entertainment to visitors. Large said the key support came from fellow members of the Rotary Club of Honolulu. "We could have never got this thing going without the support of the Rotary Club," he said.
The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism allocated $10,000 to help finance the startup of the organization.
Annual funding in support of VASH has since skyrocketed. The organization received $240,000 from the Hawaii Tourism Authority this year. The tourism authority allocated the same amount for VASH for its next calendar year. "Now people recognize the value of it," Large said.
Large helped set up VASH offices on the neighbor islands and stepped down as executive director in 2000 to pursue other projects. Still, VASH has a big place in his heart, he said.
"We are showing that things will happen anywhere in the world, but here the people are going to come through with true aloha."
‘Guiding sister’ of VASH eases man’s loss of his wife
Kathleen Aure was close to retiring as vice president and assistant general counsel for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. She and her husband were taking lessons last July at Maunalua Bay so they could take scuba-diving trips together.
Aure signaled to her instructor that she lacked air and headed toward the boat. Her instructor followed her. While at the boat's ladder, she went limp after her weight belt was removed, said her husband, Jack Marks, during a phone interview from Oakland, Calif.
Marks and others on the boat administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation before an ambulance arrived. "She never regained consciousness," Marks said.
She was taken to Straub Clinic & Hospital, where doctors pronounced the 61-year-old Aure dead.
Devastated, Marks said he did not know where to go or what to do after his wife of 28 years unexpectedly died. Someone at the hospital referred him to the Visitors Aloha Society of Hawaii.
Executive Director Jessica Lani Rich immediately stepped in and provided moral support to Marks. She took him to her office, where she and her staff helped contact relatives on the mainland.
Rich also accompanied him to the coroner's office and comforted him when he picked up his wife's ashes from a funeral parlor. Marks said he could not have gone through the process without Rich and her staff.
"She was like a guiding sister," Marks said.