40 years of helping helpers

WAILUKU – The J. Walter Cameron Center, home to more than a dozen social service agencies, will celebrate 40 years of service to Maui this weekend.

The center’s “Time of Renewal” celebration will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wailuku estate of the late Masaru “Pundy” Yokouchi. The evening will include cocktails, dinner, a live auction and entertainment by George Kahumoku & Friends.

The celebration will also honor founders J. Walter Cameron and Douglas Sodetani, who teamed up to build the innovative center.

Cameron died in 1976 and Sodetani in 1996.

Opening its doors on April 23, 1973, the center cost $2 million to build, with funding from the state, the county, foundations and businesses.

“He had the idea that instead of having the agencies scattered around town in different places and renting their own spots, to bring them all together and have common maintenance,” Mary “Maizie” Cameron Sanford said of her father on Friday. “He said to me that it took him 25 years to convince the agencies to come and to get the funding.”

At the time, conditions for nonprofit organizations to survive were difficult and many had to rent their own buildings. Consolidating agencies to one location helped to push the cost of rent down and produced more clients for each group.

“One of the things happening back then was Kahului being built up,” said Cesar Gaxiola, executive director of the Cameron Center. “It was the dream city, so a lot of the folks moving in left buildings in Paia and Haiku and other areas.”

Gaxiola said that many of the buildings that agencies left were plagued by leaking roofs and broken windows and were without doors.

“J. Walter said we need to move closer to where the community is now and we need to have a building that’s safe, clean – people can feel protected and people can feel welcomed,” Gaxiola said.

The 43,000-square-foot center currently houses 16 agencies with nearly 300 workers, and serves more than 30,000 clients annually. The center also provides about 80 different programs and has a therapy pool guided by four instructors.

“It works for agencies when they interview the family, they say, ‘Oh, you have a child, I can refer you to Imua Family Services two doors down,’ ” Gaxiola said. “Or, if you have health problems and need to start eating healthy, two doors down is the Simply Healthy Cafe.”

People can also be referred to the recently added Maui County Office on Aging, which serves more than 1,000 elderly people and their families on Maui. The office, which was located in the One Main Plaza office building in Wailuku for the last four years, moved to the center in April.

“It was a nightmare,” Programs Specialist Norma Circle said of the agency’s old location. “There was no drop-off place there . . . so this location for parking and accessibility is really nice.”

Circle added that the office also serves as the Aging and Disability Resource Center and being close to other human service agencies allows workers to do a “warm handoff” if their clients have other needs.

Other Cameron Center agencies include the Mediation Services of Maui and the Maui Mental Health of America.

In a contract with the Maui judicial system, the mediation agency takes from 50 to 60 percent of cases involving family, landlords and other disputes out of the court.

“We’ll spend anywhere from three to six hours with each party in our mediation room,” Executive Director Max Tornai said. “But what’s great at the center is we have access to the auditorium and conference rooms, virtually free of charge.”

The mental health group also makes use of the auditorium and conference rooms, hosting free educational programs moderated by guest speakers.

“This is a nice environment, especially for human services because a lot of the people connect with each other through being here,” Director Robert A. Collesano said. “It’s kind of like a little community.”

One of the organizations that has been with the community since it opened is Ka Lima O Maui.

The agency has provided employment services for disabled people for more than 50 years and serves about 200 clients per year. About 50 people find jobs at the center; the remainder work at hotels and supermarkets and as custodians.

“The center is so accessible to all the other social services and provides quick access for (our clients),” Executive Director Chantal Ratte said. “It’s a very united group of agencies that all work together.”

When Ka Lima O Maui was added to the center four decades ago, Cameron was a board member of the agency, and Sanford said he was adamant to help it and the others move to the Central Maui location. Cameron even spent $10,000 of his own money to conduct a feasibility study to gauge whether the project would work.

“My father never talked about that,” Sanford said. “He was never going to blow his own horn and he didn’t really want the agency to be named after him, but they (including Sodetani) insisted on it.

“It was a nice legacy for him, and he was very proud of it.”

For tickets to the celebration call 244-5546 or send email to info@jwcameroncenter.org.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.