The Hand Up

Programs run by Catholic Charities Hawai'I help 25,000 people a year. Sermon-free.

Quinton Cuesta knows how it feels to be homeless. He and his family were living on the beach when a health professional suggested he seek help with Ma’ili Land Transitional Housing, one of 38 programs operated by Catholic Charities Hawai’i.

He and his family now live in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in the transitional housing complex and couldn’t be happier, because they know they are working toward their goal of buying their own home. While space is tight, "It’s a lot better than being on the beach," says Cuesta.

Rowena Kinimaka, shown with her daughter, was helped by Catholic Charities Mary Jane Program, which survives entirely on donations. photo: Val Loh

The rent is minimal, but the housing comes with other obligations. The Cuesta family must attend weekly classes that teach them about efficient use of food and how to save and manage their money. Cuesta’s daughter, Genevieve, 14, and son, Quinton, 12, attend tutoring sessions to help them with their schoolwork.

Catholic Charities Hawai’i is far more than its name implies. The Catholic Diocese sponsors the nonprofit organization, but it operates independently, running programs that serve anyone in need. Examples include sheltering the homeless, counseling and nurturing the abused, educating immigrants, providing a refuge for pregnant women with nowhere to go and sustaining seniors’ independence.

Established in 1947, the nonprofit helps 25,000 people per year throughout the Islands. But the 300 staff members have no intention of promoting dependence on their services. Their goal is to help people to help themselves.

"It’s not a handout; it’s a hand up," says chief executive officer Jerry Rauckhorst. "People have to assume responsibility for their own life circumstances."

In the Ma’ili Land Transitional Housing Program, tenants are allowed to stay for two years, and there are many rules besides attending classes.

"You’ve got to work," says Rauckhorst. Contributing financially is part of the process of building self-esteem. Catholic Charities Hawai’i treats everyone with dignity, and this includes helping clients gain the confidence to see that they have the power to choose the path they want and manage on their own.

Despite the charity’s name, religious convictions are not a factor. "We don’t encourage a particular faith dimension," says Rauckhorst, who adds that anyone who shows an interest in exploring spirituality is helped and encouraged. "But it’s not preaching. It’s a matter of accepting people where they are."

Rowena Kinimaka is another person who credits Catholic Charities Hawai’i with changing her life. Several months ago she realized she could not live with her baby’s father anymore because they were having "differences," and he was not interested in helping raise the child. But she was six months pregnant at the time and had no place to go. "I was at the lowest point in my life. I felt the only options were to terminate the pregnancy or put the baby up for adoption," recalls Kinimaka, now 31. "I’m very happy I didn’t go in that direction."

Then a clinician at a free pregnancy clinic told her about Catholic Charities’ Mary Jane Program. Now she is living in Kailua in a home with counselors who help prepare single pregnant women for their babies’ births and the challenging years to follow. New moms are allowed to stay for four months and then must find their own housing, with plenty of assistance provided along the way. [This program survives entirely on donations, says Rauckhorst].

Counselors encouraged Kinimaka to scour the Internet on the home’s computer for grant and housing applications. She applied for low-income housing and is on the waiting list. She also received a grant to study for her real estate license—something she’s always wanted to obtain.

In return for doing chores in the home and attending parenting classes, she receives coupons for redemption in the Boutique Shop at St. Anthony’s Church, also sustained largely by in-kind donations. There she purchases bottles, diapers, clothing, toys and formula. Her baby was born in December, and both are doing well.

Cuesta and Kinimaka represent thousands who have received unexpected help from Catholic Charities Hawai’i. Cuesta often stops by the beach where he once lived to counsel others and tell them about the opportunities Catholic Charities Hawai’i provides. "By finding this program, it changed my attitude," says Cuesta. "It gave me hope."

Kinimaka, once at odds with her immediate family, is mending old wounds. "My daughter coming into this world has actually rebuilt my relationship with my own mother," she says.

That’s not the only relationship that’s been reconstructed in the process. The growing confidence in Kinimaka’s voice reveals that there’s someone else she feels much better about: "I’m not going to give up on myself."

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. For information: