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Auntie Elaine Watai remembered as a community leader with a heart for keiki

Updated: 
February 19, 2016 - 8:51am

KAILUA-KONA — Elaine Watai, of Kailua-Kona, also known as Auntie Elaine, an activist for youth, community organizer and public safety advocate, died Feb. 5.

She was 77.

Those who knew her recalled a woman who was devoted to the Big Island and everyone on it, especially the younger generation.

“Her actions in the community were really widespread,” said Ardie Ikeda, a longtime fellow volunteer. “She was always about the youth of West Hawaii.”

Watai’s daughter, Elaine Jelsma, said Watai’s interest in working with people began during her time as a hotel bartender, where her personality and friendly nature earned her promotions running the business’s special events. When she retired she didn’t stop working, moving instead into arranging events for community groups. That led her to create the Kealakehe Community Association and eventually get a 501(c)(3) certification for the group.

“She was always very forceful in what she did. If she wanted it to get done, it got done,” Ikeda said.

She always knew what she was going to do next, Jelsma remembered. Her train of thought seemed to be focused on what project she could take on next. That often included having her family help out, which could be exasperating. But the completed project was always fulfilling and well worth it.

“You get back and go, ‘Oh my god, I’m so glad to be a part of it,’” Jelsma said.

When Jelsma became a police officer, she remembered fielding calls from her mother about various violations or being asked to run plates of unknown vehicles. And when residents became exasperated with how many people were parking illegally in handicapped spaces, rather than simply complain about it, Jelsma said Watai convinced police to deputize a number of residents to write parking tickets.

Watai was known for tying together her interests into one, such as including her church into programs, using her family as project helpers and her neighbors as assistants. That trait formed her fundraising skills, which she used to continue to support the Kona Task Force on Feeding the Hungry, where she worked for about 20 years.

Ikeda was, and remains, the coordinator of the group. They provide free meals for any one who visits at the Kealakehe Intermediate School cafeteria on Wednesday nights. The most complex production is the Thanksgiving meal the organization has held for 22 years, which has drawn hundreds of people the last several years.

There, Watai’s plan was simple, as recounted by Jelsma: “Let’s feed the whole world Thanksgiving.”

She was critical to the operation.

Many organizations continue to exist because of the efforts of Watai, Ikeda said. Her absence will require a great deal of soul-searching.

“The community is going to miss her very much because of all the hard work she’s done,” Ikeda said.

Services are scheduled for an informal viewing at 4 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Church of Latter-day Saints in Kailua-Kona and a burial at 9 a.m. in the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery.

She is survived by her daughters, Paula Jelsma of Kailua-Kona, and Shiloah (Blane) Kenolio of Hilo; hanai daughters, Florence (Dave) Schamehorn of Ohio, and Kaleinani Balanon of Aiea, Oahu; sons, Benjamin (Imelda) Watai, Walter (Lavaina) Watai, and Jerry (Arlene) Watai, all of Kailua-Kona; sisters, Frances (Tommy) Salvador of Honolulu, and Rose Williams of Sacramento; nine grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins.

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