WAILUKU When Randy Echito was hired as executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Children's Justice Center of Maui, the organization was struggling to fund its mission of helping abused and neglected children.
"We were kind of living from hand to mouth monthly," Echito recalled.
So he spent his first couple of years on a program to get more people involved in the agency, which last year paid for services such as counseling, tutoring and medical care for more than 750 children in need.
Applauded for nonprofit work
The organization also supports the state Judiciary's Children's Justice Center, where suspected victims of child sexual abuse and extreme physical abuse are taken for interviews and possible forensic examinations.
"You just keep talking with people and telling them about the mission," Echito said. "It seems once they hear about it, people are just very anxious to help children who have been abused or severely neglected."
With no federal, state or county government funding, the agency relies on donations from foundations and private individuals and corporations.
As he marked both his 65th birthday and his retirement last week after 7 years, Echito was applauded for his work - not only in fundraising for the now much more financially stable organization, but in creating partnerships with other agencies and promoting education to prevent child abuse and neglect.
"He's very passionate about what he's doing," said Sherri Dodson, executive director of Habitat for Humanity. "Randy's one of these guys who doesn't say much about what he does. He's very humble, but he's done tremendous work over there. His board members love him. Everybody does."
In 2010, Echito was named Maui County Outstanding Non-Profit Executive Director by the Maui Non-Profit Directors Association.
"He has created a very strong partnership with all the social service agencies on the island," said Paul Tonnessen, a longtime board member who took over as executive director upon Echito's retirement. "He has brought our fundraising to a new level. He's very highly respected in the community and by the board.
"If you talk to anyone in the nonprofit world on this island, they will rave about Randy."
An annual benefit fundraiser, which started out on the beach, has grown and is now held at the King Kamehameha Golf Club in Waikapu. After last year's event sold out for the first time, another sellout is anticipated for the sixth annual "Malama i na Keiki" fundraiser Oct. 19.
Tonnessen, who joined the Friends board about 10 years ago at the same time as Echito, said he sees his new job as "building on his legacy, basically."
"He has just continually grown the agency, so my job is to continue it," Tonnessen said last week, as he prepared for the transition at the office the agency shares with the Children's Justice Center in Wailuku. "He's built the foundation, built the house. It's time to put the addition on."
The executive director is the only paid employee of the Friends organization, which spends only about 11 percent of its budget on operating expenses, Echito said. He said the group relies on "a ton of volunteers," as well as its 16-member "working board."
Board members and volunteers have parked cars at the Hyundai Golf Tournament, which designates Friends as one of about a half-dozen beneficiaries of the tournament.
Volunteers also staffed a table last week at Whole Foods, which donated 5 percent of all its sales Sept. 26 to the organization. Whole Foods donated a portion of proceeds from a recent Govity.com deal to Friends.
Kula resident Sharon Woodall, who has been a Friends volunteer for six years, spending most Thursdays in the office, called Echito "dedicated above all else."
"I have seen what a true executive director does for an organization," she said. "I have learned a lot from him about how important our organization is to filling that need in the community to help these kids."
Echito was an insurance agent in Southern California for 23 years before moving to the Big Island, where he owned a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on the Kona side. He was looking for a nonprofit organization to help support when, through his banker, Echito learned about the West Hawaii Friends of the Children's Justice Center.
He happened to be at the center one day when an 18-month-old girl who had been sexually molested by her grandfather was brought there.
"It's even hard for me to talk about," he said. "That was a powerful thing for me. I said whatever I can do for this organization, I'll do it. That was my in-the-moment that made it all seem worthwhile."
Echito spent five to six years as a board member before serving as executive director of the West Hawaii organization for a year.
Similarly, when he moved to Maui, Echito spent three years on the Friends board and was its president before becoming executive director when Rosemary Blair left the job in March 2005.
Despite the cut in pay from his job as development director at Maui Academy of Performing Arts, "I just jumped at the chance," Echito said.
"I never envisioned I'd get into the nonprofit arena at all," he said. "It just happened by accident, but I'm glad it did. This has been very rewarding."
Friends funds requests from more than 25 social service agencies for services to help children in need. The requests could include social and sports activities and transportation.
"It's just about anything you can imagine," Echito said. "The majority are enhancements, something that's going to make the children feel better about themselves. It can be after-school programs, summer programs, sports, music, horseback riding lessons."
Echito expanded Friends to promote prevention, creating an annual supplement published in The Maui News and producing and distributing DVDs about mandated reporting of child abuse and shaken baby syndrome.
Echito also was instrumental in forming the Ho'oikaika Partnership, a network of agencies and individuals committed to the prevention of child abuse and neglect, and its One Strong 'Ohana campaign, Tonnessen said.
He said Echito's leadership has created a diverse board, which includes a doctor, lawyer, accountant and marketing director. "We're all one big happy family, which is really nice," Tonnessen said. "He's created a family."
While coming from a business background of organization and reliability, Echito has an approachable style, said attorney Davelynn Tengan, a board member since 2008 and current vice president.
"He has passion and knowledge about child abuse," she said. "He works very well with board members. Board members all love him. If they could give him raise after raise, they would."
"He's so conscientious," Dodson said. "He's done a really good job of training and putting in place his successor to be sure that the agency will continue on. That says a lot about his character and commitment to the agency."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.