A helping heart

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Sanoe Ka‘aihue is the executive director of Women Helping Women, a nonprofit organization that aims to end domestic violence through advocacy, education and prevention, while offering safety, support and empowerment to women, men and children impacted by domestic violence.

It’s been nearly two years since Sanoe Ka’aihue last turned off her cellphone.

“It’s always on,” she said. “I’m no stranger to 3 a.m. phone calls.”

Ka’aihue is the executive director of Women Helping Women, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention and support services for direct and indirect victims of domestic violence — women, men and children — on Maui and Lanai. Ka’aihue took the helm in September, a few months after her predecessor, Stacey Moniz, left to head the Honolulu-based Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Ka’aihue knows firsthand how the organization impacts lives. In 2002, she walked through the front door of Women Helping Women to file a temporary restraining order against her abusive partner.

“I know how scary it can be to take that first step,” she said. “But it’s the first step toward becoming whole again.”

Seven years later, Ka’aihue signed up for a kickboxing class at a gym. There, she struck up a conversation with a fellow classmate; the pair soon became workout partners. After a year of throwing jabs side by side, Ka’aihue learned that her new friend, Stacey, was the executive director of Women Helping Women.

“That’s when I shared my story with her,” she said. “And Stacey said, ‘You should come work for us.’ “

Initially, Ka’aihue demurred. But, in the fall of 2013, she says a gut feeling prompted her to change her mind. So, when she bumped into Moniz on the opening night of the Maui Fair, Ka’aihue casually mentioned she was interested in applying for a job — and the following Monday morning, she was sitting in a conference room interviewing for the position of TRO advocate.

In the months that followed, Ka’aihue handled close to 400 TRO cases — nearly half of all TROs filed in Maui County that year — and quickly discovered that she had a knack for guiding clients through the same legal process she’d navigated more than a decade earlier.

Ka’aihue worked as a TRO advocate until she was promoted to deputy director of the organization in March 2016. And she’s been on call ever since.

“I don’t mind it at all,” she said. “When my phone rings, I know it’s a call that could change someone’s life.”

When Moniz stepped down last spring, Ka’aihue pulled double duty — as deputy director and acting executive director — until she was formally hired as the head of the organization in September. Since then, she’s kept Women Helping Women’s programs running smoothly and has worked closely with the Maui Police Department, other nonprofits and the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In addition, she is currently working with donors and private attorneys to launch a new legal services program that will help cover clients’ legal fees.

In just a few short months, Ka’aihue has become the face of the organization; she’s spoken to a number of community groups and has led training sessions for new police recruits and at resorts, medical offices and schools.

“I try to be everywhere I can,” she said.

Next month, she will fly to Washington, D.C., to explain the concept of “talking story” to members of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Every year, Women Helping Women helps about 1,500 women, men and children impacted by domestic violence. Annually, police respond to more than 4,000 incidents of domestic violence countywide, but Ka’aihue said that many incidents go unreported.

Nationally, the statistics are staggering. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S., which equates to more than 10 million women and men annually. And on a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.

Ka’aihue said that Women Helping Women’s 24-hour crisis hotline receives hundreds of calls every month. All calls are answered by a live person, who is ready to help in any way possible — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“There are no holidays for domestic violence,” she said.

Looking to the future, Ka’aihue said that she is committed to ensuring Women Helping Women continues its many life-changing programs. And, of course, she’d also like to see a future without domestic violence.

“I have a passion for the agency and the work we do,” she said. “It’s the path I need to be on.”

Women Helping Women has offices in Wailuku, Hana and Lahaina and on Lanai. For more information about the organization’s programs, to learn about donor or volunteer opportunities or to schedule a domestic violence prevention training for a group or business, visit womenhelpingwomenmaui.com, send email info@whwmaui.net or call the main office at 242-6600. If you or someone you know needs help, call the 24-hour crisis hotline at 579-9581.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer.

Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.