Paying it forward

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Thirty years ago, Esther Yap took a leap of faith and applied for a bookkeeping job at a nonprofit she’d never heard of. Fast forward to today, and she’ll tell you it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made. “I was looking for something fulfilling — and I found it,” she said. “I’ve been here 30 years and I still enjoy coming to work every day.”

Since 1989, Yap has balanced the books at Ka Lima O Maui, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides job training and employment opportunities to adults with physical and mental disabilities so they can live fully integrated lives.

When she answered Ka Lima’s help wanted ad three decades ago, Yap suspected it would be more than a 9-to-5 accounting job — and that’s precisely why she decided to fill out an application. She says the nonprofit’s motto, “enhancing lives through self-reliance,” was the clincher.

“The mission grabbed me right away,” she said. Today, when she’s not crunching numbers, Yap is pulling double duty as Ka Lima’s special events coordinator. She handles the logistics for the organization’s annual Thanksgiving luncheon, client Christmas party, job fair and summer picnic, as well as three annual golf tournament fundraisers and Ka Lima’s participation in the Maui Visitor Industry Charity Walk.

Over the years, she’s seen firsthand how Ka Lima changes lives by putting paychecks in the hands of those who may not otherwise have an opportunity to work. As Maui’s largest employer of individuals with disabilities, the nonprofit offers far more than an hourly wage to its clients — it also gives them a sense of purpose, pride and self-worth.

Founded in 1955 as a vocational rehabilitation program for recovering tuberculosis patients, Ka Lima eventually expanded to serve a larger population in need of job training. Today, its landscaping and janitorial services program employs more than 65 men and women with disabilities through annual service contracts with private businesses, the County of Maui, and federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration. Ka Lima’s landscaping and janitorial crews work at more than 80 locations islandwide, from office buildings to county beach parks to the TSA screening stations at Kahului Airport.

Ka Lima also has a job placement and retention program, which matches a client’s skills, talents and interests to a local employer, monitors their performance and provides support if and when it’s needed. And for clients with developmental disabilities, the organization offers basic living skills training as part of its Medicaid Waiver program.

Last year, Ka Lima launched its first-ever capital campaign to raise funds for a new facility to be built on a 2-acre site not far from its current headquarters, a leased space at the J. Walter Cameron Center. With a home of its own, the nonprofit will be able to consolidate all of its operations (which are presently spread out over several locations) and expand its programs and services to accommodate more clients. The capital campaign is now underway, and Yap hopes the community will help the organization reach its fundraising goal so it can make an even greater difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

Ka Lima has close to 200 clients on its roster and Yap is on a first-name basis with all of them. “They’re like family to me,” she said. “They are the reason why I’m here.” Perhaps that’s why Yap routinely goes above and beyond her job description. Among other things, she keeps tabs on many of the clients, calling to remind them about upcoming medical appointments (and in some cases, driving them to and from the doctor’s office), dropping off bags of groceries at their homes and helping them out with their tax returns. “They know we — all of us who work for Ka Lima — are here for them,” she said. “This is a place where people show compassion for one another every day.”

Yap says Ka Lima’s transformative power is a two-way street. “We change our clients’ lives, but they change ours, too,” she said. “And always for the better.”

For more information about Ka Lima O Maui or to contribute to the capital campaign, visit kalimaomaui.org or call 244-5502.

* 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.