Staff calls for health center to reinstate director
Supporters organize rallies, say no reasons given for dismissal
WAILUKU — Hui No Ke Ola Pono staff and supporters are calling for the reinstatement of the nonprofit’s longtime executive director, saying they were blindsided, sad and disappointed over his recent termination.
At a rally Monday in front of the Cameron Center, where the nonprofit health care center is located, staff members said they were told last week by the organization’s board of directors that Joseph “Joey” Gonsalves had been removed without any consultation of staff or reasons for his dismissal.
“We’re just all really sad and disappointed and confused with the information that was given to us,” Oral Health Director Emi Orikasa said. “It was kind of a shocker. It just came out of nowhere, blindsided all of us.”
Gonsalves had been with the organization for nearly three decades, including eight years as executive director, said Denise Carvalho, a registered nurse with the hui. She said the organization consists of about 40 staff members, including nurses, lomilomi practitioners, doctors, community health workers, oral health aides, hygienists and workers at the Simply Healthy Cafe the nonprofit runs.
Supporters of the former director are holding a rally at 4 p.m. today along Ka’ahumanu Avenue near Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. They have also called for his reinstatement through an online petition at change.org that had 1,335 signatures as of Thursday evening.
Gonsalves could not be reached for comment this week, but in a post on the petition site, he expressed “heartfelt gratitude,” to those who had signed the petition and called to check on him.
“While this whole experience has been overwhelming, your kind thoughts and gestures have helped me get beyond the anger that I felt and to focus on what is important — my family, my friends and the hui,” he wrote. “I hope to be reinstated and if need be, purposefully help transition the organization to new leadership without disrupting services. The hui has been part of my life for 28 years and I am grateful for every minute I have had to serve the Maui Native Hawaiian community.”
The board said in an emailed statement this week that it “cannot share employment decisions and, particularly, disciplinary actions that are confidential personnel matters.”
“It is not appropriate for the details of these decisions and actions to be made public, out of concern and protection for both the former employee and the organization,” according to the statement provided by Board President Mona Kapaku.
The board said that it shared news of the removal with staff on July 15 “after consideration of the evidence presented and that failure to act would have amounted to failure of our fiduciary duties as board members to safeguard the funding and nonprofit status of Hui No Ke Ola Pono.”
“As the board, we assured staff that we made this decision with understanding of the gravity of this decision, after the necessary gathering of facts and due diligence, and with respect and empathy for all involved, especially Joey,” the board said.
Gonsalves was given written notice of the board’s decision, including the reasons for termination, the board said, adding that it also sought to discuss the issue with Gonsalves.
Eric Kapono began serving as the interim executive director on Monday. He had been working with the hui since October, developing a strategic plan for the organization, and in the process, “his expertise in nonprofit administration and strategy have earned him the respect and trust of the board,” the statement said.
No candidate has been identified for the permanent position of executive director, according to the board, which intends to begin advertising for the permanent position and hire as soon as possible.
“We are hopeful that persons experienced in nonprofit administration and passionate about Native Hawaiian health will apply,” the board stated.
Staff said services would continue but that Gonsalves’ departure would leave a hole.
“Joey is compassionate. He is kind and gentle-hearted. He’s for the community,” Carvalho said. “He just stands up for everybody and makes sure everybody is getting what they need and supporting them. And he would never do anything to jeopardize that.”
Orikasa called Gonsalves “an excellent boss.”
“He allowed our department, the Oral Health Department, to really grow and flourish and be able to expand to so many different areas, able to service a lot of people who normally wouldn’t be able to receive care,” she said. “He was behind the development of our virtual dental home program where we go on-site to Hale Makua, Kula Hospital, WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program) — I mean this is all pre-COVID — but we would take services out into the community to help eliminate or to help remove barriers to receiving dental care.”
Orikasa said the board never asked the hui’s program managers “about how we felt having him as a boss and what issues were going on.”
“He was always supportive of whatever initiatives we wanted to undertake,” Orikasa said. “This was just really disheartening to our department as well as everyone at the hui, because he was always so supportive.”
The organization’s mission is to improve the health status of Native Hawaiians as well as integrate medical care with traditional Hawaiian values, according to its website. It also provides programs on nutrition, health management and health care referrals for the community of Maui.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com. Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.