As news director at KUMU, Jessica Lani Rich functioned as the dispassionate chronicler of events, good and bad, but that’s certainly not how she ended up.
Now the president and executive director of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (VASH) for seven years, Rich intervenes when personal tragedy befalls a tourist. Cases range from the merely disruptive (losing a wallet on the beach) to life-shattering episodes such as the missing hiker from Norway whose family ultimately came to retrieve his body.
Occasionally, there’s some lighthearted reprieve: VASH recently sponsored a screening of the final Oprah Winfrey Show for the entertainer’s tourist fans.
Married and the mother of a grown son, Rich said she can reckon with the gravity of tragic losses, which make her appreciate her own family that much more.
"I think my plan was to be always in the media, be on the air, be on the radio," she said. "But being a spiritual person, I think God had other plans for me, and I think I’m exactly where I need to be, which is helping strangers.
"All I deal with is strangers, but within five minutes, there is an intimacy that they experience that they don’t even experience with their family."
QUESTION: What role do you think VASH plays in Hawaii tourism?
ANSWER: I see our role as basically being there when people least expect somebody to be there. I had a situation a week ago on a Sunday where Straub Hospital called me: A man had just lost his wife and he was just in shock. He was a tax collector from Kentucky. He was here celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary, and it was their first day of their vacation, and his wife died at the hotel. … He wasn’t hard to spot because everyone was lying around and he was like off in a corner, looking. … And he told me, “You’re my best friend. At this very moment, you’re my best friend.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m here for.” … I happened to show up in the darkest hour of his life, losing his wife of 25 years. And he just opened up and shared things, and his immediate need was to go home as soon as possible. So we took care of that. We had him on the next flight out. … He said, “You know, I’m not a charitable person; I’m a tax collector.” (Laughs) And he said, “But when I get home, I’m gonna do something nice.” I said, “Don’t even think about that, I’m here for you.” And at the funeral, we had donations given to VASH, and we have donations coming in now.
Q: Would you call this a typical case?
A: We see thousands of cases, from people who try to sneak their pets on an airplane, and then I get called into the airport. Just crazy things people do, you wonder how they can be so silly. … Having a case where a woman tried to sneak her dog on the airplane and didn’t think she’d get caught. But when the dog started barking, people started to notice.
Q: What is your staffing like?
A: We have only two full-time people, and we have five part-time people. That includes on the weekends part-time case managers who work Sundays and in the evenings. They handle, for the most part, 80 percent of your thefts on the beach; they handle what I call the not-as-critical cases … I take care of the critical incidents. We have a total of about 120 volunteers, and of that we have 22 board members. But many of the volunteers mostly work on the phone, and they have a schedule. But only one volunteer wants to handle the emergency cases. … I don’t blame them. You’re looking at pretty serious stuff.
Q: What’s foremost in your mind when you approach someone in emotional distress? How do you reach out to someone like that?
A: Everybody that we see has one thing in common: They’ve lost something. It could be either their wallet, their passport, their health, a loved one. There’s some sense of loss. … First of all, we let them debrief, cry or just share as much as they can.
Q: Is there something you would typically say to begin that process?
A: Yeah, usually what we say is, “We heard about what’s going on with you, and tell us about it.”
Because they want to tell their story. And once they tell their story, there’s always something we can do to help, whether it’s, “I want to go home as soon as possible. Can you give me a calling card?” … In the case where they’ve lost their loved one, obviously there’s nothing we can do to replace their loved one. But what we can do is just be with them, in the darkest hour of their life: losing your best friend, losing your spouse, losing your mother, losing your child. … For that moment, that person is the center of my world. Anything I can do to make them feel cared for, supported, they feel that. We do have people, no matter what we give them, they’re not going to be happy. And that’s maybe 5 percent of the population.
Q: Is it sometimes too much, like working in a trauma center? Or are there rewards that balance it out?
A: Does it take its toll on me? I feel fortunate that I go to church every Sunday, and I’m a very strong person of faith. When I see people hurting and in pain, I feel I am fortunate in that I have a gift — it’s kind of a weird gift (laughs) — where I can just be there and love another person, and something bigger than myself is there to pass this person through whatever pain they’re in to the other side.
Q: Can you give an example of a hard case you’ve handled?
A: One of the toughest cases I’ve ever had was, I was called to Hawaii Medical Center-West, where there was a young boy. His father had died two years earlier. His mother was a single parent, and she died out on the boat. … So we walked in, and fortunately the doctor had just told the boy that now his mother had died. And we were with him when he was just wailing at the top of his lungs. And I sat there next to his mother … and, in a way, something spiritual happened to me.
As I am close to people who pass away, I feel that I have a responsibility to take care of their loved ones when they’re not there. (Tears well up.) Even if it’s just to get them back on the airplane. …
And you know? People come back. … I have lots and lots of testimonial letters from people who come back. And they come back because they remember the aloha.
Q: Was there ever an occasion where it just didn’t work, the visitor was unapproachable?
A: The wonderful thing is that we work in teams. … I usually work with a gentleman named Bob Gentry. Robert is the former mayor of Laguna Beach, Calif., and he’s my critical-incident partner when we go out. … If something doesn’t work, nine times out of 10 they’re going to be either comfortable with you or they’re not. If they’re not, the team member can help. We can tell when we’re on a case who really clicks with this person. …
By the same token, we respect people’s space. If they don’t want us, we move on.
Q: Is that hard to pick up? People don’t just come out and say, “Beat it!” Or do they?
A: They let us know what they want, pretty clearly. They let us know if they want to be alone, although most people who lose a loved one, they want you there.
Q: You’ve mentioned your faith. Can’t religion be a divisive element, too?
A: I’m glad you brought that up.
I’m a spiritual person, and the more I deal with people who pass away or are near death, I actually have become more intuitive and more sensitive to what their loved one needs. … I never talk to anyone about my personal belief, because religion is a personal thing, but I believe there is a higher power, especially here in Hawaii.
People ask me, “Why are you a happy person? It doesn’t make sense.”
I’m happy because I love life. I appreciate life in such a way that people take it for granted, because they don’t see what I see every day.