Molokai veterans celebrate opening of their own center

KAUNAKAKAI – Molokai veterans celebrated Friday the grand opening of a veterans center that took more than a decade to complete.

It’s the first time the island’s more than 400 veterans have a place to call their own. The Kaunakakai facility received its certificate of occupancy last month and is equipped with a certified kitchen, three offices, a main hall, an outdoor patio area, four bathrooms, two showers and Wi-Fi capability.

“It feels great. Finally,” Samuel Makaiwi, commander of the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, said after the ceremony, which drew nearly 200 people, including several elected officials.

Plans to build the veterans center began in 2000, when former commander Larry Helm and a team of volunteers started planning for a space where they could hold regular meetings and Veterans Affairs clinics. Molokai Ranch donated about an acre along Wharf Road for the center in 2004, but securing the building permits took more than seven years, veterans said.

Several veterans who’ve lobbied for the project, including Helm, have died since construction began in 2006. Helm died in June 2013 after a battle with liver cancer. The Vietnam War veteran was 70 years old.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard touted the perseverance and dedication of Helm and other Molokai veterans “who have brought this place to reality.”

“It’s heart-warming. It’s exciting. It’s inspiring, and it brings closure to the hard work and sacrifice of so many people,” Gabbard said after the meeting. “But it’s also a sad day because a few of our friends and fellow veterans who had the vision for this home aren’t with us. It’s deeply unfortunate that this couldn’t have happened sooner so that they could be here with us celebrating. But, at the same time, their memory will continue with the mission as it continues to grow.”

Since 2002, veterans had been renting a small room in the Braith Building, known as “the bunker,” while waiting for the permanent facility to clear needed approvals. The process ran into difficulty when the Molokai Planning Commission decided that the project needed two permits – one for the building and the other for the flagpole, former Maui County Veterans Council President Paul Laub said last year. The permit for the flagpole alone was held up two years when the county Department of Water Supply director refused to grant the permit unless the waterline was expanded from 4 to 8 inches. The permit for the 3,000-square-foot building was held up for various other reasons, and it wasn’t until Helm filed a complaint in 2010 against Maui County in U.S. District Court that the project was allowed to move forward, Laub said.

Maui County Council Member Stacy Crivello, who holds the Molokai residency seat and is Helm’s sister, presented the veterans with a plaque on behalf of the council.

“I’m sure all of you can appreciate what seeds were planted (by Helm and others),” Crivello said in an emotional address. “The seeds are planted, but need to be continued to be watered.”

The building cost about $450,000, which was funded through county and state grants and from community donations. The building could still use solar photovoltaic panels to save on energy costs and air conditioning, which Crivello said could be funded through county grants.

She said after the ceremony that “it’s a big day for Molokai . . . because so many have gone home, but I know they’re just observing and applauding from above. It took a lot of work. It took many years. It took boldness.”

Council Member Don Couch, who had been following the project since 2002, said “we had to fight for a long time because of different laws and rules.” He remembered that Helm organized a protest in front of the county building during Mayor Charmaine Tavares’ administration to advance the Molokai veterans center.

“Larry Helm was the one who was really pushing hard,” Couch said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa thanked Helm and the rest of the veterans for seeing the project through despite the hurdles.

“When this project started, only the veterans had the vision that this was achievable. But look at what we have today,” he said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.