Big heart, big gifts
The Big Island Giving Tree is rooted in Rhonda Bell’s heart. Born and thriving in Waimea, she wanted to give back to the island and raise her sons to do the same.
Bell began her work 10 years ago when she became involved with volunteer community services.
“It just tugged at my heart and I wanted my boys to see that there are people that need help and that we need to help them,” says Bell. “When we go to the elderly housing I bring my kids because they always want to talk story. They want to hear a story, tell a story, see a smile, hold a hand,” she adds.
Back in 2005 Bell was working through Lokahi Giving Tree, based on Oahu, but when they stopped services on Hawaii Island, Bell was just getting started and wanted to keep going.
“I wanted to reach more people and more ideas came to me,” says Bell.
Bell, her husband Leighton, Nancy Carr-Smith, Kalai Kalamura, Lani Olsen Chong and Patti Cook — a small cadre of like-minded folks — started by providing holiday feedings.
“We started out small. At Christmas time we did a turkey meal for the elderly. At first we only did Waimea and Honokaa. We made the turkeys ourselves. Then we realized that there were a lot more seniors who would appreciate this meal,” says Bell.
She found herself looking at a big niche to fill. “No one really does turkey or a meal for anyone on Christmas Day,” Bell says.
What do you do when you have a big task? Why hui of course, and that’s when Sansei Restaurant in Waikoloa was invited onboard.
“They were so excited and happy to do it and that’s how we were able to do a Christmas Day dinner,” Bell says.
The circle of aloha soon grew outwards. “That first year we did all the housing complexes that we could think of. Then we had extra (food) so we went down to the beaches and found the homeless families,” she says.
This launched her on a new mission. “That’s when we learned that these homeless families were working homeless families. They’re all working but they can’t get housing. It just pulled at my spirit because I saw these children living on the beach. We expanded even more,” says Bell, adding warm blanket and basic necessities to the holiday turkey dinner.
Last year The Big Island Giving Tree (BIGT) became an official nonprofit organization, associated with Redeeming Light International (RLI).
“Someone suggested I meet with Sharon Davis at RLI so I did. It was the perfect match. She totally orchestrated everything for us,” says Bell. “Now that we’re a part of RLI we have been so successful and able to expand more. We have more volunteers coming forward to help us. It’s really amazing.”
BIGT is a kind of cyber hub that helps connect people in need with donations. When there are goods to be donated, Bell gets a call and she sends out a text to see which of her 10 volunteers are available for pick up.
“The thrift store gets a lot of hotel amenities and Coupon Moms (a group of coupon clippers who take advantage of offers) have also donated a lot of necessities. They’re around the island and when they have an abundance, they email me and I pick up a container from them,” says Bell.
Next, volunteers sort and distribute items to families island-wide. “We put them into packets and hand them out to the homeless. In Hilo. we just did a clothing and basic necessity drop off. Volunteers separated it by gender and sizes, put it in the back of their cars and took it to various areas where they knew homeless were living. They did seven different camps that day,” says Bell.
While mostly centered in North Hawaii, BIGT also provides assistance in crisis situations island-wide. When hurricane Iselle hit Puna, BIGT volunteers were there with food and clothing donations. They also provide help in the case of house fires, flood, sickness or death.
BIGT is focusing on helping homeless families and recently has spread its wings even wider, looking to establish a center that will put families in touch with available services.
“I got in touch with HOPE Services and the Mayor’s office a couple of months ago because we want to make our feedings more than just feedings. HOPE Services is willing to come and put up a tent during our feedings to bring services for the homeless. The majority of our families are at the beaches so we’re looking for a place down in Kawaihae somewhere,” says Bell. “The only way that we can help people is if we partner together and know what other services are available. We need to help them lighten that burden.”
According to Patti Cook, Waimea Community Association’s president, the annual Christmas Twilight Parade and related holiday festivities help support BIGT’s “blessings” to the community. The kickoff event is the Christmas Tree Lighting at Parker Ranch’s Puu Opelu on Thursday, Dec. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m.
BIGT also has a holiday adopt-a-family program where a business or an individual can provide food and items from the family’s wish list.“More than 90 percent of the time it’s food or clothing for their children. We have an application and they can choose what size family they’d like to adopt and we try to match them up,” says Bell.
They would also like to match up homeless teens with gift certificates for movies, bowling, Starbucks, Jamba Juice, surf shops, Jeans Warehouse or anything with teen appeal.
And as if all of this isn’t enough, Bell and her husband are planning a youth group mission to the Philippines through their church, Solid Rock North in Hawi.
“I think it will be a great experience for them. The first place we’re going to go is the Compassion International Center to help families that have been hit by the storm recently and actually are living in a rubbish dump,” says Bell.
The BIGT is a shining example of what can be accomplished when people with big hearts share their aloha and light with others.
“As for Rhonda, I don’t think I know anyone quite as selfless,” says Cook. “Nancy Carr Smith, who is her volunteer right hand, calls Rhonda ‘an angel’ and I think she’s spot on. But Rhonda just says she’s just lucky to be the conduit of blessings from those more fortunate to those in need.”