Ethel May Helmbright is considered an "ariki" back in New Zealand, a person of high regard to the Maori people. She was the last of her generation, the last living member of eight brothers and sisters who abruptly set off for Alaska three decades ago.
How she ended up homeless on the streets of Waikiki for 10 years — confused, unwilling to accept help and unable to even remember her own name — might remain a mystery forever.
But the bigger question is how the gaunt and frail woman known in Honolulu as "Josie May Bright" will adjust to life back home in New Zealand, reunited with a family she cannot recall.
"She’s confused," said her court-appointed Hawaii guardian, Roger Petticord. "She doesn’t understand what’s happening."
The Hawaii Office of the Public Guardian has handled "Jane Doe" cases before, but nothing like the mystery of 83-year-old Josie May Bright, Petticord said.
"This one’s unique," he said.
Helmbright’s life began in the ruggedly beautiful land of a Maori tribe, in an area known as the Bay of Plenty on the eastern end of North Island.
She was the second youngest of three boys and five girls and would become, her family says, the last granddaughter of a Maori chief who signed the key British-Maori document called the Treaty of Waitangi.
"The Treaty of Waitangi that was signed in 1840 by the British crown and various Maori chiefs is seen as the founding document of New Zealand nation-hood," said Jerry Finin, deputy director of the Pacific Islands Program at the East-West Center. "It is the key document for understanding land relations in Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand)."
In the 1920s, Helmbright’s father, Leonard, a Polish immigrant, left the family when the oldest child, Harold, was just 13 years old, said Harold’s son, Peter Helmbright.
"My grandmother was left to milk the cows with eight kids," Peter said.
When their mother left the family, too, young Harold tried to keep his brothers and sisters together. But the children soon became wards of the state, Peter said.
At the age of 15, sometime around 1939, Ethel set off for the big city of Auckland, Peter said.
As World War II began, she reunited with her mother and a sister, Mary, and became a nurse in an Auckland hospital, Peter said. After the war, Ethel traveled around the country helping the sick and injured, he said.
Her older brother, Harold, returned to their village of Te Kaha after the war and continued working the land, along with other members of the extended Helmbright family, raising cows, pigs and sheep.
Ethel developed a fondness for alcohol, Peter said, had a daughter that she gave up for adoption and then appeared at a 1987 family reunion in Auckland.
Soon after, Ethel took off and Peter remembers hearing his late father say that she was in Alaska.
Over the years, as her mother, brothers and sisters died out, Helmbright’s nieces and nephews assumed that Ethel had died, as well, somewhere far away, probably up in Alaska.
So when her photo suddenly showed up out of Hawaii in June, the family was stunned.
"To know that we still have a grandparent out there is pretty buzzing," said one of Ethel’s granddaughters, Ngaio Helmbright, 21. "We always heard that we had a nan (grandmother) that flew to Alaska."
In Hawaii, Helmbright had been living in the bushes by the Waikiki Community Center off Paoakalani Avenue, said Darlene Hein, director of community services for the Waikiki Health Center.
"She was pretty well-known," Hein said. "She didn’t give a lot of information and refused our help. She never came in to our office. She was just there."
Finally, as her health deteriorated, Helmbright agreed to be admitted to the Queen’s Medical Center in August 2009 and was listed under the name Jane Doe.
Over the next 10 months, through bits of broken conversations, Jane Doe suggested other names for herself and revealed that she had once been a nurse.
So health care and social workers at Queen’s began calling her "Josie May Bright" and "Nurse Jo," Petticord said.
"It’s not as if she presented herself as Josie May Bright," Petticord said. "She didn’t know her name and didn’t know her birth date."
Petticord’s office took over guardianship of Josie May Bright on Dec. 14. After her health improved and she was transferred to a foster care facility in June, Queen’s officials and Petticord issued a plea on June 23 to anyone who knew the woman with the New Zealand accent.
Josie May Bright’s picture spread across New Zealand, where members of the large Helmbright family recognized the woman in the photo.
"By crikey!" her nephew Peter said when he saw the picture. "That’s Auntie Ethel."
When family members came forward, fingerprints taken at Queen’s confirmed her identity, Petticord said.
"She is Ethel May Helmbright," Petticord said. "’Josie May Bright’s’ actually pretty close in some ways. Her middle name is May. And Bright is part of her last name."
"Her people there want her and are proceeding to set things up to take her," Petticord said. "It looks like it’ll have a happy ending."
Helmbright, who has been diagnosed with dementia, would be scared, uncertain and unsure once Family Court in Honolulu clears the way for her return to New Zealand, perhaps in the next few weeks, experts say.
"It’s going to be tough," said Elizabeth Stevenson, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter. "She probably won’t recognize her family members. And any change in the environment of an elderly person suffering dementia — even going from daylight to nighttime — is disorienting and can cause agitation."
Helmbright’s nieces and nephews who last saw her 23 years ago at their family reunion in Auckland are willing to fly to Hawaii to spend weeks — or even months — getting to know their Auntie Ethel to ease her transition. But the daughter whom Helmbright gave up for adoption decades ago — a woman in her 50s named Melissa who is estranged from the Maori side of the Helmbright family — has claimed custody of Helmbright, said Helmbright’s niece Colleen Helmbright.
"The daughter’s now in charge," Colleen said in a tearful telephone interview from New Zealand. "So we have to sit back. But everybody in the Bay of Plenty where she came from would love to welcome her back — everyone."
In Maori culture, Ethel is considered a "kuia," an elder lady, Colleen Helmbright said. The fact that Ethel may not recognize any of the Helmbrights "doesn’t matter."
"In our family, she’s the last of that generation," Colleen said. "Over here, we share our elder people. Even the young ones were willing to put in $10 a week to have someone over there in Hawaii.
"Knowing she was homeless in Hawaii was devastating," Colleen said. "She could have been home and we could have been looking out after her. It’s embarrassing that no one’s been over there. Someone should be there."
Michael Field, Auckland bureau correspondent for Fairfax Media, which has been following Ethel Helmbright’s story, said a team of reporters has been unable to track down her daughter for comment.
Ethel’s Hawaii guardian, Petticord, declined to identify the New Zealand relative claiming custody, but said, "We’re happy with who we’ve identified."
No date has been scheduled to begin the process in Family Court to relinquish custody of Ethel, put her in the hands of the relative and allow her to leave Hawaii’s jurisdiction, Petticord said.
It could take several court appearances. Or the multiple issues may be decided in one hearing, Petticord said.
"We don’t even have any authority to help Ethel May Helmbright," he said. "We have authority to help Josie May Bright until the court corrects it. Before we send her to New Zealand, we need to know that everything’s set up. But we are feeling good about what’s happening."
Hein, of the Waikiki Health Center, has seen plenty of family reunions with homeless people in Hawaii go badly.
"The successes often come with having people they know, so they can trust the process," Hein said. "It’s really hard on both ends — for the client who is confused about what is going on and for the family trying to figure out how to assist. They really want to help, but they don’t know how. It’s not easy."
Petticord hopes that Helmbright’s relative develops a relationship with her in Hawaii before they travel back together to New Zealand.
"We do envision … the relative we’ve identified coming for her and accompanying her back," Petticord said.
However it turns out, the journey back home will be yet another chapter in the mysterious travels of Ethel May Helmbright.
"It’s quite buzzing, isn’t it?" said Ngaio, Helmbright’s granddaughter. "She doesn’t even know it, but she’s one of the last kuias left."