Tuesday, November 24, 2015         

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Friends aid needy families as gift to each other

By Pat Gee


Instead of buying frivolous Christmas gifts, five friends who've known each other since junior high school pooled the money they would have spent on each other to adopt a family in need.

"That would be our gift to each other," said Emily Bordner, organizer of their "shop-eat-wrap" tradition the past seven years. The first Sunday of December is the day set aside for joint Christmas shopping, a dim sum lunch, and wrapping piles of presents at Bordner's Manoa home with Punahou classmates Lisa Johnstone, Jennifer Tanabe, Aulani Silva and Mie Wells.

The women have selected a family from the annual Adopt-A-Family program under Helping Hands Hawaii, whose executive director is Jan Harada, a fellow Class of 1992 graduate. The five were touched by the selflessness of a homeless single mother of three boys, who left an abusive husband, struggled to find part-time work and asked only for necessities, Johnstone and Silva said. To make sure the boys have a place to live together, the mom gets different relatives to take them for a period. Her relatives are too hard-strapped to take the mother in also, so she lives out of her broken-down car.

The Star-Advertiser's annual Good Neighbor Fund assists Helping Hands in boosting awareness of the critical needs of so many families, even more glaring against the backdrop of extravagant holiday celebrations. Readers may adopt a family featured in our weekly GNF story with cash donations or gifts, or contribute to benefit all families. For details, see the information box.

After 20 years of regular girls' nights out, the five friends habitually finish each others' sentences as if they were of one mind, and when it came to choosing the recipient of their gifts from a variety of cases, the same one resonated with all of them.

"We picked this one because they seemed like they needed it the most," Wells said. "All of us felt for the single mom. She didn't really ask for anything fancy, not even toys, just the necessities."

The mom wanted clothes for her sons and a gift card to buy groceries for a holiday meal. The women spent about $400 on several items of clothing, toys and backpacks for each boy, along with plastic drawer units for their belongings, as they were constantly moving from one house to another, Johnstone said. Even though the mom didn't ask, the women couldn't resist buying her some clothes, toiletries, and special items like makeup and lotions, because "everything she does is for her sons," Tanabe said.

Johnstone said the mother's car needs a new transmission, and it's been tough not having a functioning car with children to drive around and getting to work. Wells added that she hoped a donor would volunteer to fix it for free.

Borden said all of them, who have professional careers, feel the satisfaction of adopting a family.

"Especially at Christmastime, it just helps us realize everything we have to be grateful for," she said. "That's really important especially as we get older, even though sometimes we feel like we're still 16. We've all been really fortunate in our lives. It's important to us to give back to people who need a little helping hand."

Tanabe said she recently explained to her 3-year-old daughter how she and her friends were helping a family.

"I'd love for her to know that this is something we all should do, and hopefully something that, when she gets a bit older, we can have her more involved in; that Christmas is not just about getting presents, it's about helping other people, too."

Every year, Wells has given her daughters, now 9 and 5, an overview of the families they've helped as "sort of a lesson to them in how fortunate they are, because my kids are incredibly spoiled!" she said. "I'm hoping it's teaching them that as a family, we have not only the ability, but in some way an obligation to help people not as fortunate." For the past four years, her family has also shopped together for presents for needy people for The Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, Wells added.

Johnstone, a student services coordinator at Radford High School, said some of her students don't get any gifts at all, so "to be able to allow a kid to have a Christmas the way they should is a pretty big deal (for me) … instead of being a victim of their circumstances."

The women usually don't hear back whether the families enjoyed their presents, but it's enough of a reward just "hoping it had a positive impact, even though it was just for that day," Tanabe said. "We enjoy doing it; we really look forward to it every year."

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