Cyndi Osajima to Succeed Retiring Executive Director Rose Nakamura

Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When Project Dana co-founder Shimeji Kanazawa was looking for a “trusted leader” to help fulfill her dream of establishing a caregiving program within Hawai‘i’s Buddhist community, she didn’t have to look much farther than across the kitchen of the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission, where she and longtime member Rose Nakamura were helping to prepare food for performers and volunteers at an obon event in July 1989.

Kanazawa, who passed away in April 2014 at the age of 98, reflected on that fateful encounter in Project Dana’s 25th anniversary booklet in 2014. Kanazawa died just months before the 25th anniversary celebration, but her written reflections were published in the program booklet.

“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’s vision and Nakamura’s administrative capabilities became the genesis for Project Dana (pronounced DAH-nah), whose stated 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.” And the mission would be carried out in the Buddhist tradition of Dana, the virtue of selfless giving and generosity without desire for recognition or reward.

Under Nakamura’s leadership and with a small, but dedicated staff and an army of volunteers, Project Dana has grown into a respected and valued community nonprofit. Nakamura recalled the early days of operating out of a small office with just a desk, a telephone and a file cabinet on the grounds of Moiliili Hongwanji Mission on University Avenue. Project Dana eventually moved into a modest single-family home on Näko‘oko‘o Street, a few blocks from the temple in the historically Japanese American neighborhood of Mö‘ili‘ili. The home was gifted to the organization by a beneficiary of Project Dana’s help.

Since its founding in 1989, Project Dana has been dedicated to enhancing the lives of the frail elderly and disabled statewide in a variety of ways — with friendly visits; respite services; transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping and religious services; telephone visits; minor home repairs; light housekeeping; home safety assessment and education; and family caregiver support.

At the organization’s 25th anniversary in 2014, Shimeji Kanazawa’s son, Sidney, said: “This story of Project Dana would not exist without Rose Nakamura.”

“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,” said Kanazawa. He also acknowledged all of the volunteers who “fueled and propelled Project Dana” throughout the years. “It is you who have shown the profound power of your kindness and inspired others to follow your lead.”

Nakamura, in turn, honored Sidney Kanazawa’s parents — Shimeji and Kinji — not only for the pivotal role they played in establishing Project Dana under the sponsorship of the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission, but also for their lifelong contributions to the larger community.

In her pre-Project Dana life, Nakamura worked as a program officer and participant services officer at the East-West Center, a career that spanned more than 25 years and where she honed her administrative and organizational skills. Those skills were put to good use as Project Dana grew into a thriving interfaith organization. Today, Project Dana represents a coalition of 32 churches and organizations involving a thousand volunteers who devote 60,000 hours annually in serving some 1,200 individuals, according to an organization fact sheet.

Project Dana’s work under Nakamura’s leadership has not gone unrecognized over the years as evidenced by a string of awards and recognitions. They include, among others, the Rosalyn Carter Caregiving Award; SHARE Award from GlaxoSmithKline and the University of Pennsylvania Institute on Aging; Star Transportation Award from the Beverly Foundation and AAA; the Ho‘okele Award from The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation; the Honolulu Forever Young Award; the Puaka‘ana o ka lä (Rise Up!) Award from the Sunrise Foundation Hawaii; and AARP The Magazine’s 2009 Inspire Award, presented to “10 outstanding individuals who are using their energy, creativity and passion for action to make the world a better place.” Others recipients of the Inspire Award that year included actress Glenn Close and entertainer Quincy Jones.

Project Dana has also been recognized as a “Best Practice” program by a number of organizations outside of Hawai‘i and is seen as a model of what can be done in other communities in the United States and abroad. Nakamura herself was recognized as a “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in 2000 — recognition Project Dana supporters believed she deserved.

The seeds of Nakamura’s selflessness likely took root in her childhood on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where she witnessed the kindness and sacrifices of her parents and the support of her community in times of need. Rose Nakamura was born Sadako Kiyosaki, the eldest daughter of Shizuo and Masae (Inouye) Kiyosaki of Hilo. She graduated from Hilo High School and was later given the English name, Rose. Her father and uncle, whose families lived next to each other, opened a supermarket in Hilo. Rose grew up helping out at the store. Likely because of her uncle’s travels to and from Japan for the store, he was interned following the outbreak off World War II. During that time, Rose’s parents took care of all of the children — their own three girls, as well as the eight daughters of the interned uncle — so that they could remain together in Hilo.

Nakamura essay, “A Life with Meaning,” was published in the 2013 book, “Japanese Eyes, American Heart (Vol. 3): Learning to Live in Hawai‘i,” by the Tendai Educational Foundation. She wrote about her childhood in Hilo and about watching her father, a block warden for their neighborhood, making the rounds at night during the war years.

“Because of that,” she wrote, “he knew what families were making do and which ones were in need, and, from his store, he helped people who didn’t have food, especially rice.” From the generosity and compassion of her parents, she learned how important it was for community members to help each other, especially in times of need.

Nakamura was living in Hilo during the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis. Her family survived the 1946 tsunami, although the water entered their house and ruined some cherished kimono. During the 1960 tsunami, however, tragedy struck on a whole other level. Her aunt was trapped in the family home when the ceiling collapsed on her. Nakamura went to the morgue and identified her aunt’s body. Although she couldn’t actually recognize her aunt’s face, she did recognize her nightgown among the 60 bodies laid out in the morgue. She wrote that it was a sight that haunted her for years.

Nakamura attended the University of Hawai‘i and majored in physical and health education. She did volunteer work at Palama Settlement on O‘ahu while at UH and was invited to return to the Big Island to work at Waiakea Social Settlement. She later secured a full-time position at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and spent her last four years there as director of student personnel.

During that time, she married fellow Hilo resident Paul Nakamura, a teacher who eventually made the Hawai‘i National Guard his career, retiring as chief of staff. The couple raised three children together. After Paul moved to O‘ahu for his National Guard responsibilities, Rose was hired at the East-West Center, where she became known for her dedication to student service.

When she agreed to help start Project Dana after retiring from EWC, she was still interested in being of service, except to an older generation. Nakamura said she remembers thinking that Catholic Charities, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, was doing good work in the community, helping those in need. She thought the Buddhist community could do the same. Shimeji Kanazawa was on the board of trustees of the National Federation of Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers and was well connected in the area of health and social services, so their collaboration in launching Project Dana was almost preordained.

Now after nearly 30 years of guiding and building Project Dana, Nakamura has decided to retire and pass the executive director’s torch to longtime staff member Cyndi Osajima, who has been with Project Dana since 1993. Osajima did her practicum work with Project Dana while pursuing a master’s degree in public health from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Because of Osajima’s range of responsibilities within the organization over the years, she is familiar to both its clients and volunteers and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her new position.

As for Rose Nakamura, she plans to continue volunteering, except without all of her previous administrative responsibilities. In a recent interview with the Herald for this story, she noted that when she agreed to start Project Dana in 1989, she had no idea how long her commitment would last. After all, she was already at retirement age when she took on the new responsibility. Knowing she could not have done it alone, she expressed deep gratitude to all of the people who shared their time, talents and selfless giving with Project Dana since its establishment. The list is long and, of course, includes Project Dana staff members, volunteers, advisory council members, Moiliili Hongwanji Mission and the organization’s many community supporters. Her gratitude extends back to the organization’s earliest days. She mentioned Maryknoll Sister Mary Powers and Project Respect, an interfaith caregiving organization that Nakamura learned from when she was setting up Project Dana; former director of the state’s Executive Office on Aging Dr. Jeanette Takamura, and former East-West Center board chair and institute director Dr. Mary Bitterman, both of whom helped guide the organization’s growth and resource-seeking; and Nakamura’s late husband, Paul, who supported his wife’s dedication to Project Dana and was himself a dedicated volunteer who provided wise counsel.

Cyndi Osajima will officially become Project Dana’s executive director on Oct. 1, carrying on the work that she knows has made a positive difference in the lives of so many frail elders and the disabled throughout Hawai‘i. Osajima’s long association with Project Dana makes her a friend to many in the aging services community and she begins her tenure as executive director with widespread community support.

As Hawai‘i and the nation’s population continue to age, with certain segments needing special care and attention, the enduing success of Project Dana is more important than ever.

Anyone interested in volunteering for Project Dana should call (808) 945-3736 or e-mail

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald and occasionally speaks at Project Dana gatherings.


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