By Fern Gavelek
Your friend vacationing from Minnesota loses her ID and worries how she will get on the plane to return home. After a day at the beach, a guest at your vacation rental is in a traffic accident requiring hospitalization. What do they do and who do they call?
First, phone 911 to report the incident to Hawai‘i County Police. The HPD or another first responder then contacts VASH Hawai‘i Island. The acronym stands for Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i and the non-profit assists with the immediate needs of visitors who fall upon misfortune.
“We assist over 1,000 visitors every year and we never know what will be needed when the phone rings,” says Karen Rose, Executive Director (ED) of VASH Hawai‘i Island. ”Our program directors will assess every call on an individual basis to determine the best course of action and services needed.”
An example of a recent call to VASH involved the death of a visitor from Canada. He and his wife had checked out from the Hilton Waikoloa Village and were out for a final swim at Hapuna Beach State Park prior to their scheduled departure.
“The husband was found unresponsive in the water and had passed away by the time the ambulance arrived,” recalled Karen. “VASH helped check the widow back into the hotel and arranged for continued bereavement support until the woman’s son arrived from Canada. We returned the rental vehicle and worked as a liaison with the county coroner and mortuary. VASH also notified the Canadian consulate for the family.”
In another instance, VASH assisted a visiting European who was admitted into the hospital for care after he went missing for four days in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
“The young man was dehydrated and experiencing chest pain,” Karen details. “That evening, VASH retrieved his rental car near the trail where he got lost and the next day picked him up at the hospital. We stayed with him because he was without any identification, cash, credit cards or mobile phone—those items were in his backpack left behind in the forest.”
Karen adds the hiker missed his flight so VASH assisted with meals, lodging and transportation while he waited to receive his travel documents and make new travel arrangements.
“As a result of requests from VASH, fees were waived by the airlines and rental car agency,” Karen continues. “On the day of his departure, VASH accompanied him to the airport to make sure he was able to board the plane and then heard from him two days later after he safely arrived back in Paris.”
Imagine It Happening to You on Vacation
To fully appreciate the importance of VASH Hawai‘i Island, Board President Rachelle Hennings suggests putting yourself in similar shoes…for example, being on a two-week vacation in Thailand. The Waikoloa resident says, “Imagine having already booked your trip’s itinerary and while out sightseeing, you fall and break your leg.
You don’t speak Thai, you don’t know if your health insurance works in Thailand and your hotel is only booked for one more night because you’re supposed to fly to another Thai city,” details Rachelle, while describing a possible travel scenario. “You already have a shuttle service booked to pick you up the next day and your hotel and activities have been paid for at your next destination. And on top of that, your spouse is extremely emotional about the whole ordeal.”
Rachelle continues, “Now think how terrifying it would be to have to deal with all of this on your own and not have the support of an organization like VASH—to help with translation, rebooking reservations, finding your spouse a place to stay near the hospital, transporting luggage, etc. I wish every vacation destination had a VASH.”
While VASH may not be able to turn a negative situation around completely, Rachelle emphasizes how having someone there to help you, talk to you, hold your hand, and even cry with you, can be such a comfort.
Summing up the value of VASH, Rachelle relies on the organization’s description by one of its founding members, Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Mitch Roth. He says VASH staff and volunteers perform “Random Acts of Aloha” every day.
How VASH Came to Be
The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i was established by the Honolulu Rotary Club in 1997 to share aloha by aiding travelers who had been victimized by crime or other adversities. Mary Ellen Smith, VASH Hawai‘i Island’s current board secretary and inaugural ED, says visitor assistance efforts began on Hawai‘i Island soon afterwards.
In 2001, a West Hawai‘i VASH program was started under the umbrella of O‘ahu’s VASH. Leading the effort was a small group of West Hawai‘i Rotarians, led by Larry Peckham, who volunteered to help visitors in need. Mary Ellen was hired to get the program started.
“I was in charge of building up the program and recruiting volunteers—at first we had about 10,” says Mary Ellen. “I either found a volunteer to handle the issue, or I did it.” While the Kailua-Kona resident officially worked 20 hours a week, it actually was more like 35. “I was answering phone calls and providing assistance at all hours of the day. I had a phone next to my bed and would occasionally get calls from the police in the middle of the night.”
In addition, East Hawai‘i also started its own VASH program. In 2002, the West Hawai‘i VASH broke ties with the O‘ahu organization and formed its own 501(c)3 so it could accept tax-deductible donations. The East Hawai‘i VASH didn’t want to be a separate nonprofit and eventually the programs were combined. VASH Hawai‘i Island was formed with its own board of directors. Today, there are visitor assistance programs on all four major Hawaiian Islands, each operating separately and independently of one another while being dedicated to the mission of sharing the aloha spirit with visitors facing adversities. All of the programs are funded in part by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA).
Early VASH Hawai‘i Island
In the organization’s early days, Mary Ellen recalls how VASH worked with police and airport security to develop a Lost ID form that was acceptable to airport TSA. It enabled visitors to leave the island in lieu of missing identification. “Until we had the form, a police report was used,” she explains.
Once police, hospitals, cruise ships and hotels knew about VASH, assistance calls came in requiring all types of attention, including deaths. “Early on we developed important relationships with Hospice of Kona and North Hawai‘i Hospice,” notes Mary Ellen.
She remembers asking a VASH advisory committee member, who also was a social worker at Hospice of Kona, to provide bereavement aid to a family staying at the former Keauhou Beach Hotel. This joint effort resulted in Hospice of Kona training VASH volunteers to provide specialized bereavement assistance. VASH also coordinates other death services for the victim’s grieving family: assisting with obtaining a death certificate after an autopsy and making arrangements to get the family and the deceased’s remains home.
An early challenge was securing volunteers in North Hawai‘i. Mary Ellen remembers a long, Sunday night drive up to Kapa‘au to transport a couple from Thailand back to Kona. “They had slipped off the road driving from the ‘Upolu Lookout and the rental car company wouldn’t pick them up,” she says. “I discovered we needed people where the problems were and today there are North Hawai‘i volunteers.”
Volunteers, Staff and Funding
Today, VASH Hawai‘i Island has about 50 volunteers providing a variety of services islandwide: translation, hospital visitation, bereavement, transportation and moral support. Volunteers go through an orientation process before going out in the field.
“The main characteristic all our VASH volunteers possess is a kind heart with a desire to help others in their time of need,” shares Karen. “Depending on how someone wishes to volunteer—whether it be direct service, language translation or fundraising—we utilize each volunteer’s strengths in a way he or she feels comfortable.”
Volunteers are assigned by the full-time ED and part-time program directors in both West and East Hawai‘i. They assess the needs of callers and recruit volunteers for assistance. Also on staff are two on-call employees offering visitor assistance. VASH Hawai‘i Island is governed by a 10-member board of directors that not only sets policy, but whose members also support staff and donate goods and services for VASH fundraisers.
Being a nonprofit, VASH relies on the generosity of donors. Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, the County of Hawai‘i and the Victims of Crime Act are the largest supporters. “We are so thankful for them,” notes Rachelle. “The ones that really touch our hearts are the small, individual donations from kama‘āina and visitors.”
Additional funds are raised at four annual events: An Evening of Cabaret in February hosted by Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Hawai‘i Hotel Association’s Visitor Industry Charity Walk in May, the VASH Bowling Tournament in August hosted by KBXtreme and the Uncorked Food and Wine Festival in November hosted by The Shops at Mauna Lani.
“Hopefully our visitors facing misfortune will go home and say, ‘Even though I had a negative experience, the VASH staff and volunteers showed me the true spirit of aloha,’” Rachelle concludes. ❖
For more information about VASH Hawai‘i Island: vashbigisland.org.