Centered on Women

It’s just getting started, but the opening of the Lana‘i Women’s Center takes a few steps in the right direction, bringing much needed counseling and healthcare opportunities to the Pineapple Isle.

"People always say, ‘Oh Lana’i, what do you do there? There’s nothing to do.’ There’s a lot to do," says Jackie Woolsey. Woolsey, who has lived on Lana’i for 19 years, keeps boredom at bay serving as public health nurse for the island, board member of several organizations, including the island’s only preschool, E Malama I Na Keiki O Lana’i, the Lana’i Federal Credit Union and the Lana’i Community Association, and president of Hui Malama Pono O Lana’i, the island’s preservation society. Woolsey’s most recent project, the Lana’i Women’s Center, is slated to open this month.

Phillis McOmber (left) and Jackie Woolsey, president and vice president, respectively, will open the Lana’i Women’s Center this month. photo: Robin Kaye

In the close-knit community on Lana’i, it was only a matter of time before Woolsey’s path crossed that of Phyllis McOmber, a Florida native who relocated to the island 30 years ago. Very active in the community herself, McOmber worked closely with Woolsey to address the medical concerns of the island. Drawing support from the community, the design of the Lana’i Women’s Center began to form in 1998. It would be a center focused on human services, providing information and counseling to residents as well as a space for visiting specialists to see patients.

As the public health nurse, Woolsey was familiar with the health issues facing the community. "We see the lack of services available on Lana’i, especially counseling and disease management," she says.

McOmber became aware of the island’s health-related needs when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. "It’s not always easy to get your specialty health needs taken care of on island," says the three-time cancer survivor, noting that Lana’i lacks a mammography unit. "If I hadn’t made an effort [to go to Honolulu] for my mammograms, I wouldn’t be here."

In fact, many medical services taken for granted in other parts of Hawai’i are very limited, or not available, on Lana’i. For instance, for a patient to see the same physician at every appointment is difficult. Pregnant women are sent off-island, up to a month before delivery date, as the hospital is not designed to handle childbirth. The community struggles with a lack of gynecologists and is missing standard counseling for pregnant or menopausal women. Currently, limited healthcare, counseling and education opportunities are provided by Straub, the Lana’i Community Hospital and Ke Ola Hou O Lana’i, the island’s branch of the Native Hawaiian Healthcare System, Na Pu’uwai. The women’s center will create additional services, without duplicating the existing programs or services of the island’s healthcare providers.

Planning the facility was exciting and challenging, McOmber remembers, but, without financial backing, the project was pushed aside for a number of years. In 2002, the call came: the Hawai’i Community Foundation (HCF) received a large donation from a private donor specifically for the women of Lana’i.

With the donation and a federal grant pending approval, Woolsey and McOmber’s dream was realized. They began leasing a one-bedroom apartment to house the Lana’i Women’s Center. The atmosphere is "homey," McOmber says, with plenty of room for visiting specialists and a meeting room. Plans for a behavior specialist and a mental health counselor are in the works, too. Additionally, the center will host workshops, educating residents on general health and issues such as parenting, menopause and domestic violence. The board also plans to offer travel assistance to women and families, as many medical services, such as childbirth assistance and mammograms, will still not be available on island.

Although the center has "touched on a lot of nerves," McOmber contends: "From the very beginning, our main goal was to complement, not compete." The board of the Lana’i Women’s Center hopes to bring several other human service agencies into the community, including Women Helping Women, The American Cancer Society, The Heart Association and Kapi’olani Women’s Center. "We’ll send our people to them and they will send their people to us."

"If you care about where you live, I believe you need to help to make it better," McOmber says. And like Woolsey, her efforts toward her community extend far beyond the women’s center. McOmber sits on several boards and is active in the arts community. Most notably, she helped establish the island’s only preschool more than 20 years ago.

"People think I’m crazy because I do too much, but I’m not a wonderful housekeeper," McOmber jokes. "To be able to help the people of Lana’i makes it my home."

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai’i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai’i’s people.

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