Tradition of aloha touches lives

by Sharon Higa | May 13, 2021

Every year since I joined Hawaiian Electric, I’ve been in awe of my colleagues who lead the Aloha United Way (AUW) workplace campaign as they surpass the company goal through creative and ingenious fundraisers. They do this in good times and hard times while still working their full-time jobs and taking care of their families. Supporting AUW’s mission to positively impact our community and touch the lives of so many in need is a Hawaiian Electric tradition that began decades ago.

In the World War II era when AUW was known as the Honolulu Community Chest, Hawaiian Electric employees held blood drives for the blood bank, raised funds and supplies for the Red Cross, helped feed the hungry, and supported a local orphanage.

In 1957 and 1958, Ralph B. Johnson, Hawaiian Electric’s executive vice president who would later become the company president (1959–1966), was tapped to chair the Community Chest’s Pacemaker Division. Mark Auerbach, a sales representative in the Commercial Department, was a loaned executive for the general campaign. At that time, the goal was to raise $1,261,000 for the 26 member agencies.

As the community grew, so did the needs of the people. In 1966, the community chest became the Aloha United Fund and then, in 1974, Aloha United Way. Flash forward to 2019 when AUW celebrated 100 years of compassionate care with a goal to raise $10 million for more than 300 partner agencies.

Throughout the years, Hawaiian Electric employees together with IBEW Local 1260 put the “fun” in fundraising for AUW, Maui United Way (MUW), and Hawaii Island United Way (HIUW) while raising several hundred thousand dollars annually to support our community’s most pressing needs.

One of the first AUW fundraisers I attended as a new Hawaiian Electric employee was a bake sale at the company’s then headquarters on King Street. The second-floor auditorium was transformed into a general store with a cornucopia of mouthwatering treats made and donated by employees. From brownies, cookies, energy bars and lemon bars to okoshi (Japanese puff rice treat), trail mix, and marshmallow rice crispy squares, even Willy Wonka would’ve drooled.

Treats ranged in price from a dollar to a high of three items for $10, so naturally I loaded up. I remember my first tastes of Barry U’s Blueberry Cream Cheese squares, Banana Cream squares and Okinawan Sweet Potato and Haupia Pie. The buttery, flaky shortbread crust combined with the silken sweet fillings were heaven in a bite. Thanks for those extra 20 pounds — not.

Many of the employees’ recipes and energy saving tips found their way into cookbooks, another Hawaiian Electric fundraiser that has become a much-anticipated tradition for more than two decades. The 2015 cookbook, “Celebrating 20 Years of The Electric Kitchen” sold out in less than two months while the recent “Stay Home, Cook Rice: A Pandemic Limited Edition” was so popular it required a second printing.

Different departments have led the company’s workplace AUW campaign, guided by carefully chosen themes such as Kahiau (selfless generosity) or Pupukahi i holomua (unite in order to progress). Employees hosted golf tournaments, movie nights, pizza nights, bowling events, country fairs, craft fairs, Zumbathons, silent auctions and online auctions. In addition to baked goods, we sold flowers, raffle tickets, hot dogs, plate lunches, bento boxes, tee shirts, water flasks, logo merchandise and more. On Maui, the annual Keiki Tilapia Fishing Tournament became a favorite fundraiser tradition, held rain or shine, to benefit MUW.

Even amidst the 2020 pandemic, fundraising for AUW continued with an increased sense of urgency. At Hawaiian Electric on Hawaii Island, Josie Kiyan sold black logo masks to personally raise more than $2,400 for HIUW at a time when masks were in short supply. On Oahu, the AUW workplace committee held a virtual kick-off rally and friendly e-pledge competition to boost participation and contributions. These and other efforts resulted in employees and retirees raising more than $519,000 in total to benefit the three United Way chapters.

As a new AUW workplace campaign launches, we are grateful to all who are able to give back to our communities — not to receive an award or to expect something in return, but to help build stronger, healthier, more resilient communities so that future generations may thrive.

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

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