Mariellen Jones


POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

It's two weeks before Christmas, and Mariellen Jones is worried. Never before in the 24 years she has been collecting donations for needy Hawaii folks have there been so many unfulfilled requests this close to the holiday.

“;This has been truly an upside-down year. Our past donors are becoming our recipients,”; said Jones, who in 1985 co-founded with TV journalist Leslie Wilcox what has evolved into the Lokahi Giving Project and serves as the nonprofit's executive director.

The charity has suspended its emergency financial assistance program, its cash depleted, and is falling short on all aspects of its holiday drive, including the Adopt-a-Family program promoted on KHON, as fewer schools, businesses and individuals donate cash and goods, Jones said.

The drop in donations coincides with a surge in requests for aid, including from hundreds of families seeking the most basic necessities, such as toilet paper.

“;You can really see that it's a struggle for folks to give this year ... but how I look at it is, 'Each one, reach one.' If we could get every business, every mom-and-pop store, every restaurant in Hawaii to give just one gift card, we could cover everyone who needs a little holiday cheer. I'm not giving up.”;





        » For information on how to donate cash or goods to the Lokahi Giving Project, or to volunteer your time, see www.lokahigivingproject.org/ or call 685-7722.

» For a list of many other Hawaii charities seeking help, check the Aloha United Way's site, www.auw.org, which links to 94 partner agencies. Among them is Helping Hands Hawaii, which distributes holiday donations gathered by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's Good Neighbor Fund.


It is that indefatigable spirit that brought Jones — the Hawaii Network of Volunteer Leaders' 2009 Volunteer Leader of the Year — to Oahu from Long Island, N.Y., in 1985. Seeking a fresh start after a broken engagement, she arrived with a master's degree in psychology and an intense desire to help working people who were trying to help themselves — that “;gap group”; living paycheck to paycheck, perennially on the brink of financial disaster, but ineligible for government aid.

Within that first year, Jones worked at Helping Hands Hawaii as a suicide crisis counselor, then as director of its Community Clearinghouse, and co-founded and ran what became Lokahi, now a year-round effort approaching the quarter-century mark.

In her free time, Jones volunteers for other charities, often including her family in the effort. That includes husband Darryl Jones (”;My No. 1 volunteer!”;), twin 30-year-old stepdaughters and two sons, ages 11 and 16. She turns 50 on Dec. 16 and has a giant birthday and Christmas wish: for an “;angel landlord”; to provide Lokahi a new home; its Kakaako warehouse has limited space, tough parking and rising rent.

“;With all the empty buildings out there I just know somebody has 5,000 square feet they could loan us!”;

QUESTION: How many people a year are you able to help?

ANSWER: Thousands. Applications for the Adopt-a-Family program are still pouring in even though it's past the deadline and we've got 450 families already in the database. We hope to help at least 1,000. Plus we already have applications for 4,000 individuals. It runs the gamut from infants to senior citizens.

Q: Are those numbers higher than usual?

A: Yes, much higher. And unfortunately we did have to impose cutoffs and deadlines. ... We've had to suspend our emergency financial assistance program because it's exhausted. Requests had gone from 10 a week to 300 a week. We were just swamped and depleted. We've been giving that out since 1992, addressing immediate needs. ... We never give funds directly to an individual; instead, we will pay a bill on their behalf. But with the number of folks asking, we had to reduce the maximum to $750 per person, and at this point we can't even do that.

Q: Is there any deadline on donations?

A: No, we take donations year-round. Although, obviously, if it's for Christmas, the sooner the better!

Q: Are you getting enough donations for Christmas?

A: No. This has been a truly upside-down year. We went from nearly 200 schools doing toiletry drives for us last year to about 60 this year. We've had companies that in the past have adopted multiple families, and now their HR (human resources) departments are calling us asking if we can help their employees who are being laid off. The tables really have turned. Our past donors are truly our recipients now. Even the mall drives are down. We usually fill up a big U-Haul truck twice (at Ala Moana Center and Windward Mall) and (this year) we didn't fill it up once. The monetary donations are down, too. People are still giving, but they are giving less. You can really see that it's a struggle for folks to give this year. But how I look at it is, “;Each one, reach one.”; If we could get every business, every mom-and-pop store, every restaurant in Hawaii to give just one gift card, we could cover everyone who needs a little holiday cheer.

Q: You've been doing this a long time. How have the needs changed over the years?

A: This year is pathetic. It's totally desperate. It's depressing. We've gone from seeing people asking for a new muumuu, or an aloha shirt, or new pots and pans, to, literally, I would say 96 percent of our applications this year have toilet paper, laundry soap, food and toiletries on their lists. Just the most basic necessities. I have batches and batches of requests where the parents did not even ask for a single Christmas gift for their children. They would be grateful just for a family dinner. ... We feel committed, responsible, that each one of these families get something. We want them to know that there are people out there who care, that they're not alone, that things are going to get better. It takes every little bit to make it happen. No donation is ever too small or unappreciated, especially by the person who receives it.

Q: Are there too many nonprofits serving the same people, asking the same donors?

A: No, we know it isn't that. We work so closely with the other charities, we keep an eye on the database (of aid applicants) to make sure we're not doubling up. All the nonprofits kind of really work together. It's not a competition, it's a cooperation. I just truly feel that it is that the need is overwhelming this year.

Q: You mentioned that fewer schools have done charity drives. Do the furloughs have anything to do with that?

A: Yes, losing a day a week is huge, both in the time that schools feel that they can devote to our projects (for example, collecting, sorting and boxing toiletry kits for needy people) and also the fact that for some families those Furlough Fridays are costing them money. They're having to pay the “;Y”; or whatever for child care, and the schools felt they just couldn't ask parents to pitch in even more.

Even our volunteer time is affected. We used to have tons of people come out to help at our various community events, but now everybody's schedules have changed, everybody's lives have changed. I don't know how to express it except to say that the whole dynamic is different.

Q: How many donations do you usually receive annually?

A: Last year, during the whole year, material and monetary, it was worth over $2 million.

Q: Do you think you'll reach that this year?

A: No. I don't think we'll get even close to a million this year. I know that we need it. But I'm afraid we're not going to reach it.

I am profoundly grateful for every donation. I want to thank everyone who has ever worked with us, every donor, every volunteer, every club, every church, this year and all the years past. We need you now more than ever.