Deep connections inspire community service

Hawaiian Electric
8 min readJan 30, 2024


By Sharon Higa | Jan. 30, 2024

The HEI Charitable Foundation annually rewards recipients of the Kokua Community Champion Service Award with $1,000 to be donated to their favorite nonprofit. This year’s six champions selected organizations that were deeply meaningful to them, often involving decades of service or a special connection. I’m proud to introduce you the 2023 Kokua Champions and the nonprofits that inspire them to their higher calling.

Since 2017, Milton Fujioka has logged more than 150 volunteer hours at Hawaiian Electric through participation in STEM and robotic activities, energy fairs and community events from Waianae to Waimanalo. The commercial client manager lives on Oahu where he has a deep spiritual connection to the Waipahu Hongwanji Mission, which is Milton’s selection for the $1,000 donation. “My parents brought me to this organization when I was a child and I’ve continued on this path ever since,” said Milton, noting his affiliation with the Buddhist temple is now more than five decades long.

Milton, right, at the 2024 BIA Home Show.

An engineer by profession, Kelly McCloskey has been a life-long volunteer starting from his college days serving at food kitchens and hospitals. He joined Hawaiian Electric in 2017 and since moving to Hawaii Island has added outdoor volunteer activities like land, beach and highway cleanups along with charity walks, science competitions and robotics events to his long list of volunteer credits. You’ll find Kelly every Saturday morning at the Kenyan K. Beals Community Robotics Center where he mentors high school robotics teams who pay it forward by teaching robotics fundamentals to elementary school students.

Kelly McCloskey volunteers as an exam proctor at the Hawaii State Science Olympiad, shown above with students and with colleagues Dave Kurohara and Jennifer Zelko-Schlueter.

Kelly’s favorite volunteer activities are related to his own enthusiasm for STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — and inspiring the next generation of aspiring engineers. So, it’s no surprise his pick for the $1000 donation will go to the Hawaii State Science Olympiad, a statewide competition involving student teams that plan, design, prototype, build, test and collaborate on a science project. “I’ll always have a place in my heart for the science Olympiad as it was one of the first dates my wife and I went on. She invited me to volunteer with her and we ran the rockets and gravity car labs. We had fun encouraging the children, discussing where their designs excelled and where they could fine tune their builds.” As participation has dropped since the pandemic, Kelly hopes the donation can help bring smaller preliminary events to the island.

Our next Kokua Champion is Michelle Zambetti, an organizational development & learning consultant at Hawaiian Electric on Maui, who has been volunteering at company events, charity walks and highway cleanups since moving to the Valley Isle with her spouse Meredith. When not participating or leading company volunteer activities, they’ll donate funds or physical items to local Maui charities, prioritizing how they will give back each year.

Michelle’s take-charge attitude was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 8 wildfires. She and her partner started an Amazon wish list of most needed items such as diapers, new clothing, food, water, hygiene products, batteries, tents, tarps, etc. As the boxes arrived, they worked tirelessly to get supplies distributed to displaced and impacted residents. Numerous organizations also jumped into action including the nonprofit Surf Cat Ranch, which provides refuge for Maui’s feral cats and kittens and is Michelle’s selection for the HEI donation.

Loki, the Norse God of Mischief.

“I selected Surf Cat Ranch for two reasons,” said Michelle. “I heard about the ranch and reached out to them about adoptable cats. They are caring for over 200 cats that were either surrendered to them or that they helped to rescue. After spending about an hour at the ranch, a cat found and adopted us by jumping into our cat carrier! We named him Loki because he’s mischievous and he’s been the perfect addition to our family.” Michelle said she was also impressed with the actions of Surf Cat Ranch following the Lahaina fires. “They created space called “Catios” on their property to bring captured colony cats and help them decompress from trauma in a safe space while preparing them for transition to a new location. Each week they are expanding their support as the need grows. Surf Cat Ranch truly lives out their belief that every cat deserves a safe home in a nurturing environment!”

Volunteers building “catios” at Surf Cat Ranch.

Balancing work with family time and community service comes almost effortlessly for Sarie Uechi, an energy contract manager at Hawaiian Electric on Oahu. She’s logged nearly 90 volunteer hours at the company since 2017, assisting with such events as the Waimanalo Regatta, participating in charity walks, donating 100+ times to the Blood Bank of Hawaii, and even helping to raise native aalii plants from seedlings to populate Pia Valley in East Oahu. Sarie’s cheery smile and upbeat attitude stems from a deeply rooted faith, which she credits Manoa Valley Church for instilling in her from a young age. The congregational church immediately came to mind when she was asked to choose a nonprofit to donate the HEI funds.

Sarie at the Mothers Against Drunk Driving walk in 2022.

“I chose Manoa Valley Church because I’m a member there. It’s a place that I grew up in, and my kids have done the same,” smiled Sarie. “It’s more than a place to worship on Sundays, it’s also a preschool, an after-school care provider, and its facilities are used by many in the Manoa community.” In 2022, Sarie co-chaired the church’s annual Harvest Fair, its biggest fundraiser which returned that year on a smaller scale after the pandemic. Recently, she supported the event by growing succulents, making baked goods and sewing various items for the craft booth. “Being a part of Manoa Valley Church is like having a whole other big family to share life experiences with you and help you to strengthen your faith in God.”

Brianne with husband Tyler Nitahara.

If the name and face of our next Kokua Champion is familiar it’s because you may recognize Brianne Yamada as a former Cherry Blossom Queen, a position that personifies leadership, poise and the perpetuation of Japanese culture. At Hawaiian Electric, Brianne is an engineer and senior project manager under Planning & Construction Management. She’s active in our speakers bureau program, connecting with students at STEM events and career fairs and igniting interest about opportunities in the energy industry through her own personal career journey. Brianne also volunteers at the IHS men’s shelter when she can and has organized company volunteers to support the Kapahulu Center Bon Dance and Okinawan Festival, cultural events that celebrate her ethnic heritage.

Brianne at the Okinawan Festival main stage.

The Hawaii United Okinawan Association is Brianne’s choice to receive the $1,000 donation because of its connection to her heritage when she began dancing Okinawan Taiko at nine years old. “Dancing was my passion, and it gave me the opportunity to learn more about my culture and where my family came from. I was able to travel to Okinawa to meet my family. Later, I brought my grandma to reconnect with her siblings that she hadn’t seen for over 60 years,” said Brianne.

Though she “retired” from dancing taiko, Brianne remains involved in HUOA serving in leadership roles and celebrating its Okinawan Festival, the annual signature event held at the convention center that attracts more than 40,000 attendees to eat, mingle and enjoy the many aspects of Okinawan culture. “The Japanese and Okinawan community are my chosen family, andi it fills my heart to be a part of this genuine, family-oriented and grass roots organization bridging future generations with those of our past.”

Andy Hignite has logged hundreds volunteer hours over a 19-year career at Hawaiian Electric. From being a 100+ donor at Blood Bank of Hawaii to serving hot meals at the Institute for Human Services men’s shelter, Andy brings the same leadership and dedication to community service that he does to his work as superintendent of technical services. He was instrumental in resuming company volunteer services at the shelter after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and has even reserved dates specifically for his department as a team bonding experience. In my eyes, Andy’s most amazing accomplishment is his nearly 30-year volunteer service to Special Olympics Hawaii, the nonprofit that serves more than 6,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities across the state and Andy’s choice to receive the HEI donation.

Andy, far left, with his wife standing next to him at the Special Olympics Special Smiles event in 2023. Special Smiles provides dental examinations, personal oral hygiene instruction, and sport mouth guards to help prevent dental injuries to athletes competing in contact sports.

“I started volunteering for Special Olympics at the summer events in 1994 with the Navy Reserves at Olympic Town,” started Andy. “Within a couple years, I became the coordinator for the Olympic Town area, and volunteered for the Summer Games, Winter Games and Bonce Ball Tournaments through 2006.” After a 2-year break, in 2009, Andy was pulled back in to help his wife when she became the Hawaii Director for Special Olympic Healthy Smiles and he’s continued to volunteer ever since. “It’s funny how things have evolved,” he chuckled. “In the early years, I was the coordinator, and my wife was my assistant. Now, she is the director, and I’m her assistant.”

As one can imagine, volunteering at events like the Summer Games is hard work and Andy admits he gets very tired after it’s over, but he receives far more than he gives. “There are athletes that we’ve known for nearly 30 years that look for me every year so that we can catch up. One of the athletes attended McDonald’s reading hour in Liliha with my children nearly 30 years ago and we always enjoy seeing him. The athletes are so happy and proud of their achievements and willing to help and support each other. These special athletes face challenges that may differ from our own challenges. But the truth is that we all face challenges, and it is amazing the joy these athletes have proving what they’ve achieved.”

Congratulations to all the 2023 Kokua Champions, you make us proud!

Sharon Higa is a senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.



Hawaiian Electric

Established in 1891, Hawaiian Electric is committed to empowering its customers and communities by providing affordable, reliable, clean and sustainable energy.