Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Sometimes the mere mention of a name can make people feel good and smile. For many, that name was Rose Nakamura, who passed away on July 10, a few hours shy of her 92nd birthday. A radiant light in a small lantern, Nakamura illuminated whatever corner of the world in which she happened to stand. More important, she shared that light with others who carried it forward and spread it around in homes and communities throughout Hawai‘i and beyond.
For over 30 years, Project Dana was the primary vehicle through which Nakamura inspired others and touched so many lives. The origin of this grassroots organization has been told elsewhere in more detail, but here are the essentials.
Nakamura and Shimeji Kanazawa were in the kitchen of the Mö‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission one day during obon season 1989. Nakamura had recently retired from the East-West Center, where she worked as a program and participant services officer for 25 years. Mrs. Kanazawa asked Nakamura what she intended to do now that she was retired, and Nakamura answered that volunteer work was at the top of her list.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kanazawa had been envisioning a faith-in-action project involving temple members who would provide social support to frail elders and the disabled in the community, especially the homebound and those in need of assistance, so that they could age in place in the environment of their choosing. She and Nakamura set into motion a series of events that provided the genesis for what was to become Project Dana.
More than 30 years later, Project Dana has evolved and grown into an interfaith coalition of 30 or more churches and temples throughout Hawai’i. It has trained hundreds of volunteers to play a supportive, critical role in the lives of elders and caregivers. As the organization’s founding administrator, an unpaid position she held for nearly three decades, Nakamura and Project Dana have won local, national and even international praise and recognition.
Nakamura was not one to toot her own horn, but others were happy to toot it for her. She was named a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in 2000. She also received awards from the East-West Center, where, by all accounts, she was a much-loved adviser and friend to students from all over the world, many of whom returned to their home countries to assume important positions in government, industry and academia.
The full list of awards is too long to mention. They include the Rosalyn Carter Caregiving Award; the SHARE Award from GlaxoSmithKline and the University of Pennsylvania Institute on Aging; the Star Transportation Award from the Beverly Foundation and the 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 Hawai‘i; and AARP The Magazine’s 2009 Inspire Award, given to “10 outstanding individuals who are using their energy, creativity and passion for action to make the world a better place.” In 2008, a special evening was even held at the Kähala Nui retirement community to honor her, sponsored by the Hawaii Pacific Gerontological Society, with proceeds going to a scholarship program.
Nakamura was not a flashy and loud figure. In fact, just the opposite was the case. She accepted recognition with a sense of gratitude and humility, because it helped raise the visibility of Project Dana. When people congratulated her on these awards, she always let them know that Project Dana was not about her, but was a team effort among dedicated staff, volunteers and community supporters.
When she retired from Project Dana in 2017, Nakamura had no intention of fading into obscurity. Instead, she said at the time that she planned to continue her volunteer work helping homebound elders, which she quietly did, without calling attention to herself. As she was in her late 80s, some of those she assisted were younger than she was. She conducted friendly visits in person or on the phone, gave rides to appointments or grocery shopping and provided wise counsel as a fellow elder who had experienced her own peaks and valleys in life. Even when no longer directing the organization she co-founded, she seemed most fulfilled when busy with carrying out its mission.
Nakamura also continued to show up at various community events — not because she had to, but because she wanted to keep engaged, learning and spending time around fellow eldercare advocates. She was the same person among the movers-and-shakers in society as she was among its neediest.
She even brushed up on her Japanese-language skills by taking classes. Why? Because she said Project Dana served a number of Japanese-speaking clients with whom she wanted to be able to communicate as well as possible.
Nakamura could share many examples of frail and disabled elders who gained well-being, independence and dignity because of the caring touch extended to them by its volunteers and staff. The hardworking volunteers also benefited from the experience, knowing they were giving back to the community by connecting with elders who might otherwise fall through the cracks and suffer from social alienation and loneliness.
After she retired, Nakamura entrusted the reins to Cyndi Osajima, her longtime trusted associate, who was selected to lead Project Dana as executive director beginning in October 2017. Osajima joined the organization a few years after it was established, while still a student at the University of Hawai‘i studying for a master’s degree in public health. Then offered a full-time position after graduation, Osajima has been there ever since. She is grateful to have learned from “two visionary women” — Nakamura and Kanazawa — during her years on staff.
“Looking back,” Osajima said, “I realize how much my life has been so greatly influenced under the guidance of my mentor and role model Rose Nakamura. My values, thoughts, relationships, friendships, actions and behaviors have all been shaped by Project Dana and Rose Nakamura.”
Despite adversities in her personal life, Nakamura drew upon her dependable strengths and moved forward on her life’s journey with kindness, resilience and a passion for applying the concept of Dana — the Sanskrit word meaning “selfless giving” — in her everyday life. She put the needs of others in front of her and inspired those around her to do the same. She was but one person, yet her positive impact on Hawai‘i is incalculable.
Rose Nakamura is survived by a daughter, Gwen. Her passing was preceded by the deaths of her husband and two adult sons. Countless others certainly think of her as a valued teacher, counselor and friend, even dating back to her early years growing up in Hilo before moving to O‘ahu. Details of her younger years, which can be found in “Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Learning to Live in Hawaii, Volume III” (published by the Tendai Educational Foundation in 2013), make for compelling reading. Nakamura authored a chapter called, “A Life with Meaning.”
Nakamura clearly found deep meaning in her encore career as the founding administrator of Project Dana. This calling gave her a powerful purpose in life — what the Japanese call “ikigai” — that kept her going strong until she felt it was time to let the next generation carry on.
“Sadly Rose has passed away,” Osajima said upon reflecting on her mentor’s demise. “However, when I look at all those associated with Project Dana — volunteers, leaders, Council members, organizational partners, elders, family caregivers, supporters and friends — I see a bit of Rose in their hearts. I feel that even though she has left us physically, the Spirit of Dana and Rose remains strong in each of our hearts. With most deepest gratitude to Rose Nakamura.”
Kevin Y. Kawamoto is an educator and longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald. He studied multigenerational social work and communications at the University of Washington in Seattle.