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Chance given

Workers just out of prison or on furloughs are hired by tough, but kindhearted lunch wagon owners

By Andrew Gomes

LAST UPDATED: 11:15 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

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Chopping an onion, washing dishes and operating a cash register are job tasks at Simply Ono, a mobile food business. But those tasks also are a form of corporate giving for the catering and lunch wagon operator on Oahu.

For nearly a decade, Simply Ono has hired individuals struggling to rebound from difficulties — typically drugs — and to stay off the streets or out of prison.

This form of giving back to the community is not high-profile. There are no public presentations of blown-up copies of checks.

It's also tough. The success rate is low, and just trying is often difficult.

But personally helping someone get back on his or her feet is a powerful reward.

There is also a broader result of helping reduce the burden on society from its need to incarcerate or support unproductive citizens.

"When they do good, I feel like a proud papa," said Harris Sukita, a co-owner of Kalihi-based Simply Ono.

The program for Simply Ono started eight or nine years ago when one of its regular customers, a counselor at nonprofit service provider Alu Like, suggested hiring some of the organization's clients with such needs.

Sukita said he initially declined. "I didn't know anything about Drug Court,"  he recalled. But later, he changed his mind, and over the years has worked with several service providers that also included TJ Mahoney & Associates and the state Department of Public Safety.

"Somebody's got to give them a chance," he said.

Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said more companies willing to give people a chance, including former inmates and inmates still in custody who are in the state's work furlough program, are needed.

"We are in need of more employers that want to hire former inmates," she said. "Our furlough program has a few businesses that consistently hire our inmates. But we could always use more."

For Simply Ono, participating in such programs provides a significant portion of the company's workforce, which comprises five people including Sukita and co-owner Cora Stevens.

Sukita said he tries to treat program employees like family. But he also applies a stern one-chance policy. "If you screw up, you're out," he explained. "If you don't show up, you're done."

This stance hasn't always endeared him with some in the rehabilitation community. But he said he wants to give chances to people who are committed to work hard to turn their life around.

"My objective is I want to see them become productive, and not be a burden on society," he said.

Unfortunately, the success rate Sukita has experienced is low. He estimates that of 75 to 100 employees he's had over the years through various rehabilitation programs, only about four or five rebounded while they were working for him. Some hires stayed on the job five hours. Others caused trouble. But the ones who succeed make him proud.

One hire has been working for Simply Ono for five years, and started her own shave-ice truck business. One former employee who had been in prison for 10 years worked at Simply Ono before moving to Hawaii island and has done well, according to Sukita. "We gave him a chance, and he totally turned his life around," he said.

There often is a financial incentive to do such work. Sometimes, rehabilitation programs subsidize part of the wage for a participating employer. In other cases, there can be tax benefits.

Sukita said he pays employees the same wage regardless of whether they are from a rehabilitation program. Skills learned on the job — from cutting fish and cooking to washing dishes and running a cash register — are what Sukita views as bigger keys for program participants to make a transition to higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs.

"I want them to learn everything," he said. Sukita said he also tries to help out program participants in other ways, such as letting them take home leftover food, staying in a company-owned apartment or borrowing a car on occasion.

Sukita has his hands full running Simply Ono, but he also has a dream to one day start another business — maybe a small sandwich shop or cafe — with a group of what he calls his "graduates."

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mikethenovice wrote:
Simple tasks that give people a sense of responsibility. God Bless both the student and the teacher.
on July 28,2013 | 05:41AM
hunebasami wrote:
This is America, everybody has a second chance. Whether they take it or not is their choice. Good luck to all givers, They will receive later.
on July 28,2013 | 07:07AM
samsdad wrote:
A 5% success rate speaks volumes of why these people were in prison in the first place. Mr. Sukita a bigger heart than most of us.
on July 28,2013 | 07:23AM
cojef wrote:
Amazing about the amount faith he has for his fellowpersons. An open and good heart for starters and gratitude for his own salvation. These are hard to come by for the ordinary citizen. Than goodness for likes of Mr. Sukita.
on July 28,2013 | 07:53AM
csdhawaii wrote:
Indeed. If former inmates are never given a second chance, they will fall back to their old ways and continue in a vicious cycle. Mr. Sukita is doing a very good thing, and shows what an amazing person he is by continuing with the program despite a low success rate. I've met him and he is such a positive person. Great guy.
on July 28,2013 | 08:14PM
808Cindy wrote:
Harris Sukita is truly a one of a kind person! God Bless You!
on July 28,2013 | 08:22AM
xxNOTxx wrote:
Wish there were more like Sukita out there---thumbs up for giving them a second chance.
on July 28,2013 | 09:29AM
nitpikker wrote:
THEY have to be the ones wanting to change their lives...otherwise they just waste everyones time.
on July 28,2013 | 11:54AM
mikethenovice wrote:
Mr. Sukita reminds me of the old Hawaii before the 1960 when we didn't even have to lock our cars. That's how much trust and Aloha Hawaii had.
on July 28,2013 | 06:24PM
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