Lyons & the Lambs

Recently named a Living Treasure of Hawaii, Patti Lyons, pictured here with JP Bennett and (from left) Alyssa Desamito with Bri-Ela Nakagawa, Bransen Farias and MJ Marsolo, has spent her career fighting for children and families in need

Sarah Pacheco
Wednesday - March 24, 2010
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Patti Lyons at work — and play — with Bri-Ela Nakagawa, JP Bennett and Alyssa Desamito

Patti Lyons has spent nearly 50 years fighting for social justice - and she’s not done yet

Patti Lyons is someone you want fighting in your corner.

She may be petite and soft-spoken, but don’t let her kindly smile or 75 years of age fool you. Patti Lyons always stands up for the little guy, literally and figuratively.

Born and raised by her grandmother Violet Hamm in a small community in Indiana, Lyons was brought up with a strong sense of service to community and others.

“My grandmother only went to the eighth grade in school, and yet she taught me about justice,” Lyons states.“You wouldn’t know this, but I was a Depression-era baby, and during that time, black people were not allowed in our town, especially after sunset. And this man couldn’t get out of town in time, and my grandmother would bring him into the back porch and kept him overnight at the risk of being ostracized. But I remember standing by her side, watching as she gave him food and gave him blankets to sleep out there ... I just remember that, and I think my grandmother taught me justice.”

Now a grandmother of five - and great-grandmother of six - Lyons has spent her life striving to find justice for abused children. Her pioneering work was recognized last month by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, which honored Lyons with the prestigious title of Living Treasure of Hawaii.

In addition to fellow 2010 Treasures S. Stanley Okamoto, Elizabeth Kawohiokalani Ellis Jenkins, Paul Weissich and Rev. Toshihide Numata, Lyons’ name will now stand amid a very exclusive and illustrious group. Living Treasures include Nainoa Thompson and Puanani Burgess, while others such as the late Mary Kawena Puku’i, Clorinda Lucas, Gabby Pahinui, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Lyman Jr., Irmgard Aluli, Claude Du Teil, Don Ho, Vladimir Ossipoff, Rev. Mitsuo Aoki and Amy Agbayani have received the award since its inception in 1976.

“I don’t need to be recognized - I’m just happy with my work and with the kids,” Lyons says of this most-recent honor. “I feel very blessed to have a career you can love and work in all your life. It’s truly a blessing.”

Lyons made her way from the Midwest to Hawaii in 1965 when her husband found his dream job doing group work inside a prison. She would find her calling as well at Child & Family Service. Initially, she was offered a position in “a nice office at CFS where I’d see middle-income and upper-income families, mostly military.”

A young Lyons greets a group of orphans waiting to be adopted

But there was another position open in Waianae that piqued Lyons’ interest: “They said ‘It’s the highest crime rate, no medical services, no dental, they’re all Hawaiian out there and they hate haoles ... You’ll never have any families to work with.’ And I said I’d like that job. Within three months I had a waiting list. They (families and children) came there to see me because they knew I cared and because I helped them.”

During her 23 years with CFS, Lyons would establish its advocacy program and neighborhood services division before rising to the ranks of assistant director, executive director and eventually president-CEO when the nonprofit adopted a corporate model. But it was during her earliest years as an outreach worker in Waianae that Lyons made a true name for herself.

When she would come across a case of abuse in low-income, high-crime areas, she would report the problem to the Department of Social Services (DSS), the agency mandated to handle such situations. However, no solution to the cases - or relief to the victims - ever came.

“You have to stand up for what you believe,” says the mother of two sons. “Otherwise, you can’t face yourself.”

Dennis Sekine bestows the title ‘Living Treasure of Hawaii’ unto Lyons last month at the Sheraton Waikiki

Going back to her grand-mother’s notion of justice, Lyons and three others formed a committee, meeting in the kitchen of Waianae Methodist Church and documenting all the cases they had reported to the deaf ears of the DSS.

Lyons, chosen as the spokeswoman for the group dubbed “The Ad Hoc Committee for the Protection of Children,” took the ignored cases to a meeting with the DSS. Again, the department would not move from its position that “families ought to stay together.” So Lyons vowed to take their case higher - straight to the state Legislature.

“I really said that they were neglecting children instead of protecting them,” Lyons says point-blank. She would take the hits that came, so to speak, so children wouldn’t.

The National Association of Social Workers called for a full investigation of Lyons’ “unethical and unprofessional"behavior. The then-director of DSS even threatened to withdraw all financial support to Aloha United Way if Lyons remained with CFS.

“They were ready to fire me because they said I was making waves, and they didn’t send me out there to make waves,“Lyons says, a defiant light shining behind her kind eyes. “It took several years, from ‘68 to ‘74, before everybody at DSS forgave me. And then they turned around and elected me the first social worker of the year! It was a complete turnaround from them hating my guts to awarding me.”

That would only be the first of many honors during nearly 50 years advocating for children. She has received: the 1996 Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation; the 2000 Kaanib ng Bayan Award, presented by former Philippine President Fidel Ramos; a 2002 Recognition by Philippine President Gloria Arroyo for her work with the Innovative Out of School Youth Project; the 2003 Award of Excellence by the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services; the 2004 Outstanding Community Leader & Advocate by the Senate of the state of Hawaii; the 2004 Keeper of the Flame Award by Na Loio Immigrant Rights & Public Interest Legal Center; and the 2006 UH School of Social Work Honoree Award.

Though currently retired, she still serves as volunteer chairwoman of the Hawaii

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