Giving Thanks For Helemano

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - November 21, 2007
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(from left) “JJ” G. (client), Yvonne de Luna (director), Mary Jane Lee (fundraising chair), Ron Renshaw (director), Devon P. (client), Angie S. (client) and Juvy Sioosi

Sometimes there just aren’t enough pages to tell a worthy story.

I’m reminded of this every time I stop by Helemano Plantation on the North Shore and spend a while with the restaurant staff. They’re friendly, courteous and unfailingly helpful as they guide lunchtime diners through a buffet lunch made from produce grown in the restaurant’s garden.

Angie is responsible for seating customers and making sure they have drinks and refills, Devon works as a waiter on week-days, and Robert is in charge of the cash register.

As in any restaurant, things get a little hectic at times.

“Sometimes Robert doesn’t want to wait to count the money,” says Angie, “but we know how to help him relax.”

And sometimes the staff wishes people would speak clearly and say please and thank you more often, but apart from that, Country Inn is almost like any other unpretentious, well-run restaurant. Almost, but not quite. Because of Country Inn, Angie, Robert, Devon, J.J. (we were asked to use only the clients’first names) and dozens of others with Downs syndrome who live and work on the plantation all live meaningful, productive lives.

“We rely on fundraising for so much of our income,” says founder of Helemano, Susanna Cheung. “But we want our clients to give back, to be productive and to feel worthwhile. Our restaurant is one of the ways we achieve that.”

It’s been a tough couple of years on the North Shore. Tourism is down and military deployments have decreased the amount of regular customers. Lunches at Country Inn used to be at a healthy 120 or so a day. In the past couple of years, they’ve dropped to 30 or 40.

But they’re not quitters at Helemano. Cheung’s vision of a residential center for the elderly and the mentally challenged is very much alive and thriving.

“I’ve always been amazed and impressed by the dedication shown here at Helemano,” says Mary Jane Lee, fundraising chairwoman of Helemano’s Dec. 9 gala. “Susanna has never hesitated or faltered in her direction and dedication. Here is a woman doing all of this on her own. She just pushes and pushes, and tries to involve the community all the time. There’s a beautiful garden here, a wonderful place for lunch, a welcoming environment and there’s a holistic nature to Helemano too.”

Lee shares a favorite story with me about a young man with Downs syndrome whose life ambition was to be a baker.

“His mother brought him here to Susanna, because she didn’t know where else to go,” she says. He trained in the kitchen at Helemano, and today works as a full-time baker on the Mainland.

Everyone is hard at work at Helemano right now, planning for the annual fundraiser. Handmade crafts, thank-you gifts and silent auction items fill office rooms. Elsewhere on property clients and volunteers are busy taking care of the gardens, flowers, retail stores and bakery, as well as filling gift basket orders for the holidays.

As I mentioned, there’s not enough room to tell all of the story.

“We need to care for others in our community,” says Lee, as I’m heading home, arms piled up with pineapple pies and fabulous homemade char siu. “Helemano helps us do that and it gives people self-worth.”

Happy eating!

Helemano Plantation’s annual fundraiser takes place Dec. 9 at Hilton Hawaiian Village, and donations of both cash and silent auction items are now being accepted. For more information on how to help, call 622-3929.

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