The new Molokai Veterans Center is no longer new but has yet to be opened. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Molokai in the 2nd Congressional District, met with local veterans yesterday at the still uncompleted center to see if she could help expedite the process.
Construction on the 3,000-foot pre-fabricated center has been dormant for the past year-and-a-half. Going back to 2005, the center has faced numerous bureaucratic, permitting and legal delays that resulted in a lawsuit against Maui County and officials from then-Mayor Charmaine Tavares’ office. While the legal settlement with Maui County gave the group Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans an additional $200,000 to help cover expenses, more funds are needed to put in the finishing touches.
Another stipulation of the settlement is that Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa agreed to make a general public apology for the county’s misdeeds when the grand opening is held.
When the settlement was reached in the late summer of 2012, then-Commander of the MVCV, Larry Helm, estimated that the center would open by January of 2013. But Helm — who spearheaded this project and devoted himself to seeing the center completed — found himself fighting a different battle in 2013. In June he passed away after losing his battle with cancer.
With nobody pushing the veteran center to completion, work came to a halt. For interior construction to finish, an estimated $28,000 is still needed, according to MVCV Commander Sam Makaiwi. Contractor Alakai Mechanical out of Honolulu has already committed to completing the kitchen, including installation of equipment and numerous fixtures around the building.
Overall, the biggest expense, said Makaiwi, will be the construction of the parking lot by Tri-L Construction, estimated to cost between $170,000 and $180,000, said Makaiwi.
Progress toward completion is “doing real well,” said Makaiwi. Veterans in attendance yesterday said they hope to see the interior work completed by the end of the summer and the entire project finished by the end of the year.
Veteran Longie Dudoit said Maui County “has been working well with us.” The group expects a water meter to be installed next week. Finishing the kitchen, including the fire suppression requirements, will be the hardest part, said Dudoit.
Rep. Gabbard — herself a veteran with the National Guard — looked over blueprints and unfinished rooms in the center with Dudoit. She asked Dudoit to send her a list of everything still needed along with the estimated costs. While government funding will take too long at this stage in the project, Gabbard said she will use the power of her office to raise awareness and move the center to completion.
“The veterans have waited too long, the last thing we want is more delays,” said Gabbard. “There are a lot of people who can help if they knew about the situation. There are enough people in Hawaii alone who can help.” Gabbard suggested an online Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds. “The veterans provide a compelling narrative and people will want to be part of it. We need to get a new generation of veterans plugged in to this.”
Larry Helm’s vision for the center — which was reiterated yesterday by Gabbard — was to see it become a town hall as well as a one-stop location for various veteran services. Doctors and health care providers can use the center to provide necessary services. It will also become a center for Veterans’ Day celebrations, meetings and other community functions.
“The light is visible at the end of the tunnel,” said Gabbard. “This was Larry’s baby and we’re going to finish it.”
Dudoit expressed the same sentiment: “Our mission is to finish what Larry started.”
Veteran Dr. David Haferman also spoke to Gabbard about improving health care services provided through the U.S. Veterans’ Administration. Dr. Haferman talked about the need for regular eye care on Molokai, a service that does not exist here through the VA. He also spoke about the problem with approvals on travel expenses and urgent care. Currently, a VA benefits counselor only visits Molokai about once every six months.
“I will be happy to relay your concerns,” said Gabbard. “One of the problems with working with anyone (in the VA) is not understanding the uniqueness of where we live.”
Lunch with the Helms
After meeting with the veterans, Rep. Gabbard visited the Helm homestead in Ho’olehua to pay tribute to Larry Helm and his ‘ohana.
Larry’s widow Barbara and daughter Nichol Helm Kahale prepared a vegan luncheon for Gabbard and the Helm family.
“What was really nice about her visit is it was real and genuine,” wrote Nichol. “She had no political agenda. She didn’t want something from us nor did we want anything from her. It was comfortable, personal and heartfelt as we reminisced about my dad. We enjoyed each other’s company in laughter, food and memory. Much like he (Larry) would have wanted it.
“He often opened our family doors to anyone (dignitaries, millionaires and the homeless) with genuine conversation, a meal and laughter. He would have been so happy to have this meal with her, even if he wasn’t a vegan,” added Nichol.
Gabbard reiterated her intention to stay true to Larry’s vision to make the new veterans’ center “a sanctuary and refuge for all veterans of Molokai to go to,” wrote Nichol.
Earlier in the day, Gabbard and Maui County Councilwoman Stacy Crivello, Larry’s sister, visited Larry’s grave at the veterans’ cemetery in Ho’olehua.
Barbara Helm had these comments following the visit: “Our ‘ohana was honored that Tulsi wanted to spend time with us remembering Larry. It feels so good to know she is following through with her commitment to Larry to bring his vision for the Molokai Veterans Caring For Veteran’s Center building to fruition. Larry believed in Tulsi’s ability and passion to represent Hawaii’s veterans and all veterans.”