Finding Honolulu’s Helpers: Josie Howard, Advocate for Pacific Islanders, is Reaching a Community in Crisis
When the coronavirus claimed the lives of many in the Pacific Islander community, We Are Oceania’s CEO, Josie Howard, witnessed distress, fear and confusion. She knew one family that lost four members to COVID. “Over 50% of [the Pacific Islander] death rate were Micronesians,” Howard says. “That really broke my heart. And I don’t want that to happen again. And it inspired me to work harder.”
The social service organization, which supports self-sufficiency of Micronesians in Hawai‘i, doubled efforts to assist. In a community that often faces cultural discrimination, many Micronesians who were suddenly unemployed and struggling kept quiet. “You know, in our culture, when you ask for food, it’s really, really shameful,” Howard says. “When you see people coming to the office and asking for food, it was a clear indication that there was desperation in the community.”
With coronavirus relief funds provided through the City and County of Honolulu, We Are Oceania launched food drives that delivered 1,200 boxes of food a week to Waimānalo, Wahiawā, Waipahu and Wai‘anae. More help came from the Salvation Army. “And then, Chef Hui came through, connected to us and they started providing hot meals, boxes of food, all for free.”
People needed information almost as much as food. Using part of $2 million delivered through the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, the organization launched a telephone help line in September with staffers answering questions in multiple Pacific Islander languages—Chuukese, Marshallese, Kosraean, Yapese, Pohnpeian, Palauan and Samoan—from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Howard knew people had to stop gathering to eat, pray, mourn—just when people needed each other more than ever. We Are Oceania helped make it happen by connecting with Pacific Islanders on the telephone, online, through the help line, using language that community members understood and people they trusted. And Howard says people are adapting: “There was a case of 14 people in a home with one restroom and they were able to keep only that one person isolating,” without anyone else catching the virus.
As the help line money began running out in early 2021, the nonprofit’s staff fielded questions during regular business hours. They also continued virtual talk-story sessions on Zoom and Facebook to provide multilingual information. They called the sessions Island Hopper, after the air route that links the Pacific islands, to give the community a familiar touchpoint on a strange new journey.
Despite the daunting work, Howard remains optimistic. As of the end of January, the percentage of cases had dipped for Pacific Islanders (not including Native Hawaiians) to 23%, still high but below its peak of 31% in 2020. “All of those efforts and all of the working together, it brought us closer. It builds new relationships and strengthens old relationships.”
She adds, “Somebody explained through hardship that the best in you also comes out, or the best in our community comes out and I am so proud of the community.”
To learn more, visit weareoceania.org or call (808) 754-7303.