Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Approximately 500 volunteer caregivers and supporters of Project Dana gathered at the Dole Cannery’s Pömaika‘i Ballrooms on Sept. 20 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this widely respected and much-appreciated organization. Project Dana’s founder, Shimeji Kanazawa, was looking forward to celebrating the anniversary with its many friends and supporters, but she died of natural causes this past April 7 at the age of 98. Her spirit reigned strong, however, as speaker after speaker at the day’s event invoked Kanazawa’s memory and recalled her deep aloha for Hawai‘i’s elders and her lifetime commitment to public service.

In a personal reflection penned by Kanazawa before her passing, the founder recalled a conversation she had with Rose Nakamura in the kitchen of the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission as they were preparing food for the performers and volunteers at an obon event on July 4, 1989.

“In a casual conversation,” Kanazawa wrote, “I asked Rose what she was planning to do with her time now that she had retired from the East-West Center. She responded that volunteering was at the top of her list.”

Kanazawa wrote that Nakamura’s reply was music to her ears, because Kanazawa was looking for a “trusted leader” to fulfill her dream of establishing a caregiving program within the Buddhist community. That was the genesis of Project Dana (pronounced DAH-nah), whose mission is to provide “a variety of support to the frail elderly, disabled persons and family caregivers, contributing toward their well-being, enabling them to enjoy continued independence with dignity in the environment of their choice.” The concept of dana refers to the spontaneous form of selfless giving in the Buddhist tradition.

The idea of starting such an organization arose from Kanazawa’s participation in a meeting of the National Federation of Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers and its advocacy of interfaith community support for those in need. In its earliest days, Project Dana learned from the work of Project Respect, a parallel caregiving organization in Honolulu headed by Sister Mary Powers, a Maryknoll nun.

Project Dana had humble beginnings, originally operating out of a small office on the grounds of the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission. Twenty-five years later, it is going strong with a statewide presence, its own cottage-office at 2720 Näko‘oko‘o St. in the Mö‘ili‘ili neighborhood and hundreds of volunteers that extend well beyond the Buddhist community.

The theme of the Sept. 20 celebration was “A Rainbow of Caring 25: Years and Beyond.” Kanazawa’s son, Sidney, who traveled to Hawai‘i from California for the event, was one of the speakers and connected to the event’s theme by invoking the 1939 musical film, “The Wizard of Oz.” He talked about life being like a journey traveled among friends, just like in the movie in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Lion and Toto embark on a search together for courage, wisdom, a heart and a loving home, but end up finding that theirs was a journey of self-discovery.

“They did not need a wizard,” Sidney said. “All they needed was a little adversity, a little inspiration and a little belief to realize that everything they wanted, they already possessed. Sort of a Buddhist philosophy.”

Sidney said his mother was “very fortunate.” She journeyed through life with friends and family who protected, promoted and inspired her. He acknowledged the many people at Project Dana who were part of that journey, and he singled out one person in particular.

“This story of Project Dana would not exist without Rose Nakamura,” he said, referring to the organization’s full-time volunteer administrator who has been with Project Dana from the start. “For 25 years, without pay and through her own personal adversities, Rose has tirelessly and selflessly dedicated her life to Project Dana, and in the process, she’s inspired us all. We believe in Project Dana, and we believe in the mission of Project Dana in large part because of Rose.”

Sidney then quickly turned his attention to the volunteers in the audience. “Project Dana is really all of you and all that you possess inside of you and that you share with others every day,” he said.

“Project Dana is a nice word, a nice thought, a nice idea — but nothing more without you, all of you. It is you who have fueled and propelled Project Dana for the last 25 years. It is you who have spread the magic of your kindness throughout the Islands, to the Mainland and to Japan. It is you who have shown the profound power of your kindness and inspired others to follow your lead.”

The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Project Dana Dancers perform a spirited dance at Project Dana’s 25th anniversary celebration.
The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Project Dana Dancers perform a spirited dance at Project Dana’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Sidney Kanazawa’s remarks were followed by a short video presentation featuring a compilation of video clips of his mother talking about her unusual life’s journey, including her childhood years in Kamuela on the Big Island, where she witnessed and remembered the kindness and generosity of her parents and how that upbringing affected her future life. She said she hopes younger people who have the strength and vitality to help, even in small ways, will become involved in the work of Project Dana and that the organization’s mission will become part of a “world agenda for the Buddhist people,” working in cooperation with other faith communities.

The video closed with Sidney’s son, Kurt, a trained opera singer, singing one of his grandmother’s favorite songs, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He was accompanied by two of his cousins on ‘ukulele in a rendering of the song that his grandmother would surely have enjoyed.

The event’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Lisa Easom, executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University, who provided an overview of caregiving in the United States, its challenges and opportunities. Other speakers included Dr. Jon Matsuoka; Dr. Michael Cheang; Mernie Miyasato-Crawford, social worker and chair of the 25th anniversary event; and Cynthia Ogasawara (advisory council chair). Entertainment was provided by the Happy Strummers, a group of more than a dozen ‘ukulele-playing elders; the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Project Dana Dancers, who cut a rug to the international hit single, “Gangnam Style”; and popular local comedian Frank DeLima, who shared funny stories and memories from his youth, infused with a surprising amount of Japanese culture.

Project Dana’s 25th anniversary celebration was filled with laughter, shared memories, learning, social connections and even a few tears. The program booklet featured congratulatory messages from Hawai‘i dignitaries, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who proclaimed Sept. 20, 2014, as “Project Dana Day.” Stories by Project Dana volunteers and supporters filled out the rest of the booklet.

Special mention should be made of Project Dana’s staff at its Mö‘ili‘ili headquarters. In addition to administrator Rose Nakamura, they include Cyndi Osajima, Suzanne Ogawa, Kim Cannon, Bryson Ho, Michael Hirano, Lorraine Mow, Elwood Kita, Tania Aoyama and Ruth Takemoto. These staff members, as well as the Project Dana site coordinators and volunteers throughout the state, keep the program alive and thriving.

One distinguished community leader who has been a strong supporter of Project Dana from the start is Dr. Mary Bitterman. Bitterman was in regular contact with Shim Kanazawa right up until the final hours of her life.

“I spoke to Shim just four hours before she passed away,” Bitterman said, “and her concentration and fixed focus was on having this event be the most magnificent in the world, honoring our volunteers. She thought that you were the stuff of which all greatness was made, clearly one true good and a thing of beauty. She would have been delighted to see how everything has come together.”

Bitterman spearheaded the fundraising effort when Project Dana first got off the ground 25 years ago, and she chaired the fundraising committee for the 25th anniversary event.
Shimeji Kanazawa’s reflection printed in the program booklet reveals a sense of great joy and satisfaction at how Project Dana has evolved over 25 years. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that Project Dana would surpass its original goals and that, in a twenty-five year period, more than 850 well-trained volunteers would be serving nearly 1,000 individuals and their families at 38 sites throughout Hawaii.”

She noted the numerous awards and recognitions Project Dana has received over the years and shared her hope that people will “increasingly treat one another with decency and dignity.” She emphasized the importance of volunteers in providing important services to the elderly and families in distress, especially when government services are reduced.

“Each volunteer can make life a little better for those in need by way of a smile, kind companionship or a helping hand — priceless contributions given from the heart with no expectation of reimbursement or praise,” she wrote.

“May we retain selfless giving (the essence of Dana), motivation, inspiration, and the ‘gambare spirit’ as the informing principles and core values in our future as they have been in our past.”

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to the Hawai‘i Herald.


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