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by Karen N. Mirikitani


You’re spending the first few days in Waikiki before touring the other islands, two to three days each on Kaua‘i, Maui, and the Big Island and flying home from Hilo. You’re having a great time, and then it happens. You’ve checked out of your Waikiki hotel, and you’re stopping off for lunch on your way to the airport, and someone steals your wife’s purse. It had all your airline tickets and hotel and car rental vouchers. And all your money and traveler’s checks, except for a little cash in your wallet. You’re devastated. What are you going to do?

Actually, all you have to do is remember you are in the land of aloha. The meaning of aloha is not limited to hello or goodbye. Aloha has many meanings, and among them is helping people in trouble. The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i (VASH) provides assistance to the visitor’s who need help because they are victims of crime or accident or other traumatic or unfortunate events.

Some of the services provided by VASH include (but are not limited to) pre-paid calling cards, meals, clothing, store gift certificates, ground transportation, assistance with rental car discounts, assistance with hotel accommodations, translation assistance to help explain services that are available, and more.
The purpose of VASH, according to Jessica Lani Rich, its executive director and president, is “Sharing the aloha of our island home with visitors affected by crime, accidents, medical emergencies, or other adversities. All of us at VASH,” Rich continued, “want to send the visitor back to their respective homes in a positive way and encourage them to come back to Hawai‘i again.”
According to Lisa Fallau, a VASH case manager (who is often assigned to help victims of robberies like the one described above), added that VASH “regularly receives numerous appreciations and testimonies from grateful visitors.”

“ We can make a difference in our visitors’ lives whether they come to Hawai‘i for business or vacation,” said Rich. “Many of them let go of their inhibitions thinking nothing terrible can ever happen while in paradise.” This is unfortunately naïve, and can lead to trouble if the visitor neglects basic safety precautions.

“ At VASH,” Rich continued, “we receive cases and reports from police and referral agencies about such tragic incidents 24 hours and 7 days a week.” She cited examples from the different types of typical cases, from car theft to the sudden death of a family member. VASH volunteers assist most by helping the distressed visitor change their perception about Hawai‘i from a negative to a positive one,” Rich added.

The bottom line is when someone is victimized. The feeling of loss is stressful and “the events that follow it are like experiencing post-traumatic syndrome,” said Dr. Terrence Wade, chair of the Board of Directors for VASH. The experience of loss varies, he explained, but it almost always follows the same pattern: Disbelief, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. A trained VASH volunteer, with lots of patience and sensitivity can “help the traumatized visitors by actively and closely listening to their stories and what their needs are and how the meet them,” said Wade. “It is important that you show aloha by being compassionate, empathetic, and genuine.”
VASH conducts volunteer training sessions open to Hawai‘i residents throughout the year. The recent training session, held in July, added 21 newly trained volunteers. “It would be nice if VASH would have around 100 active volunteers,” said Rich, adding “people involved with VASH are always welcomed as signs of spreading the aloha spirit further.”

Founded in 1995, as a service provided by the Rotary Club of Honolulu, VASH grew in just two years to become an independent, nonprofit volunteer organization. Started on O‘ahu, it quickly spread to additional chapters on Hawai‘i, Kaua‘i, and Maui. Rich is currently serving as the organization’s president and O‘ahu’s executive director. She has served with the organization for more than six years. Three case managers—Fallau, Lindsay Leeworthy, and Petra Panfiglio—are full-time staff employees.

For more information visit the VASH Web site, visitoralohasocietyofhawaii.org. To become a certified volunteer with the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i, call 926-8274 or e-mail visitorexec@hawaii.rr.com. And remember the VASH motto: O Ke Aloha Ke Kuleana o Kahi Malihini. “Love is the host in strange lands.”

The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i staff left to right: Mari McCraig, Petra Panfiglio, Dr. Terrance Wade, and Jessica Lani Rich.
Photo courtesy Karen Mirikitani


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