Powered by compassion: 2021 Kokua Champions

by Sharon Higa | Jan. 10, 2022

The 2021 recipients of the HEI Charitable Foundation Kokua Community Champion Service Award all have a heart to serve their communities. Whether helping save lives, inspiring the next generation or feeding the homeless and hungry, compassion powers their acts of service. As their reward, each Kokua Champion has been empowered to give a $1,000 grant from the foundation to their favorite nonprofit(s). Let’s meet the champions and their selected charities.

In the top left photo, Mindy, second from left, is the lead coordinator for company blood drives and has helped make Hawaiian Electric the largest private blood donor in the state. In the bottom right photo, Mindy empowers keiki with AED and CPR skills so they can help save lives.

As the company’s safety aide, Mindy Kakazu is all about saving lives and that dedication overflows into her volunteer work.

For more than 35 years, Mindy has personally donated blood and twice made the centennial list for giving 100 pints. In addition to supporting company volunteer projects such as beach cleanups, Mindy also shares her professional knowledge with Kids 4 CPR, a nonprofit that teaches lifesaving AED and CPR skills to Hawaii keiki so they in turn can teach family and friends.

“I chose to split the grant between Blood Bank of Hawaii and Kids 4 CPR because these are two causes that I have dedicated my time and energy to for years. Blood donations and CPR. Both of these save lives and there’s no substitute for either.”

John, above right, helps clean the yard at Huialoha Church grounds with other community volunteers.

For John Mauri, director of generation administration for Hawaiian Electric’s Maui County operations, the Kaupo community is a special place that must be preserved. The once bustling district that rests on the southeastern shores of Maui is home to cultural and historical landmarks including the 162-year-old Huialoha Church. It’s a spiritual heart of this remote community with a picturesque view of sky, ocean and mountains, and John’s choice for the HEICF grant.

John has been volunteering for years with other Maui ohana on “Mission Kaupo” to help restore the church and maintain its rugged landscape. The group’s efforts have revived the community, and church services have resumed once a month; youth camps with fishing have been held along with other outdoor activities; and the maintenance of the Huialoha property brings the community together. A Maui Food Bank distribution in Kaupo also was launched under Mission Kaupo to help community members in need.

John, lower right, at a Father’s Day celebration on the grounds of Huialoha Church.

John is pleased the HEICF grant will benefit the special place that is Kaupo. “Restoring the church ensures a solid foundation for the community to build its future on.”

Michelle Chang, second from left, at IHS pre-COVID with fellow Hawaiian Electric volunteers. “Volunteering at IHS is also a nice way to see employees that I don’t often get to interact with in my job and help those in need.”

Engaging with people is part of her job as a community relations specialist and Michelle Chang often goes beyond the call of duty to give her time, talent and resources to help others. In addition to volunteering as a mentor to young leaders and vice chair for a credit union, for the past seven years Michelle has been actively involved in the Institute for Human Services (IHS), the nonprofit focused on ending homelessness and Michelle’s choice to receive the HEICF grant.

In 2019, Michelle added the responsibility of coordinating company volunteers to serve meals at IHS. Then COVID hit and in-person volunteering was halted. “A lot of times people think that only the homeless are at IHS, but I’ve seen people that work regular jobs come to eat because they can’t afford to put food on the table and their hard-earned money just covers housing expenses. Sometimes this meal is the only one people eat in the entire day. To see the smile on their faces while eating the hot meal is priceless. I look forward to when we can go back to in-person events and can serve at IHS again.”

Riley, second from left, inspires students to pursue STEM careers through his volunteer work with the Waiakea High Robotics Club.

His passion for engineering makes Riley Ceria, manager of reliability and resilience strategy, well suited for the role of robotics program mentor at his alma mater Waiakea High School. In his volunteer capacity, Riley helps students design, build and program robots while imparting valuable STEM and life skills.

“I chose the Waiakea High Foundation to receive the HEI grant because I have been working with the schools’ Robotics Club since 2006,” said Riley. Under his guidance, the Waiakea High team transitioned from building large, bulky robots to constructing microbots, all while winning awards in national and international robotics competitions.

“The robotics club provides wonderful opportunities for any student that wants to participate. They get to work on large projects with real world tie-ins. Former students return to help the club because it helped them. Those coming out of this program have strong skills and it shows because we have hired some of my former students at our company and they have all been a strong positive for our workforce.”

Left to right: Kirk, Leigh Ann Landreth (executive director, YMCA of Honolulu, Windward YMCA) and Stephanie.

Stephanie Sakurai, enterprise program and project consultant, and Kirk Tomita, senior environmental scientist, are lifelong volunteers who have logged hundreds of hours for dozens of projects that draw upon their knowledge of environmental conservation and stewardship and their dedication to the needs of the community. This compassion to give back stems from their personal growth and the values learned through the YMCA, the couple’s selection to receive the HEICF grant.

“I was painfully shy growing up and the YMCA provided a place to form friendships, learn from mentors and have new experiences like going to Camp Edman, attending social events and playing on volleyball and basketball teams,” said Stephanie. “I also learned about volunteering through the efforts and patience of volunteer advisors and coaches. Today, the YMCA continues to improve my life through their fitness centers and group exercises classes.”

For Kirk, he literally grew in the YMCA. “My mother was a program director and eventually a vice president at the YMCA of Honolulu. I was in the summer fun program at age three and many other youth programs offered through high school.” After graduating, Kirk served as a volunteer advisor for the teen programs and continues to volunteer as a member of the board of directors at the Windward YMCA. “I strongly believe in the mission of the YMCA and the many programs offered for all ages. The YMCA continues to be a passion for my family. My wife enjoys the fitness/wellness programs, my brother is an executive director, and my dad is a volunteer swim coach.”

“We are honored to be recognized by HEI and thrilled to further support the YMCA’s mission.”

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

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