Committed, compassionate, calming volunteers are the “heart and soul” of the American Red Cross, said Coralie Matayoshi, chief executive officer of the organization’s Hawaii State Chapter.
The nonprofit humanitarian organization goal is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. With its small staff, the Hawaii Chapter relies heavily upon volunteers to help respond to disasters and other troubles within their communities. There are 4,000 volunteers statewide, of which 122 are on the Big Island, Matayoshi said.
Some of the volunteers respond to crises within two hours of them occurring, offering a sympathetic ear, a blanket, shelter, first aid and more. Others raise money, teach classes or help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to, a variety of emergencies. All are important and their selfless deeds are priceless, Matayoshi said.
However, one Kona volunteer, Tom Kaneo, will be recognized for his outstanding service. The 61-year-old fire prevention business owner will be named Saturday as the West Hawaii Red Cross Volunteer of the Year during a special Heroes Breakfast at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.
Every year, the Hawaii State Chapter recognizes the humanitarian spirit of extraordinary individuals statewide who have shown kindness, courage and unselfish character. People like Kaneo demonstrate that inside each human being is a hero, ready to assist those in need, Matayoshi said.
As a small-business owner, Kaneo does what it takes to get a job done and maintains that attitude as a Red Cross volunteer. A disaster volunteer since 2001, he is now the Disaster Action Team captain for Kona. In this role, he is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He is the first to respond to a disaster, Matayoshi said.
After making an assessment, Kaneo works with a team to coordinate the needs of those affected. He also opens and coordinates logistics for shelters, maintains two emergency supply storage areas, services the Red Cross’ generators and teaches disaster courses. He is also a licensed HAM radio operator, which allows him quicker access to communication between the fire and police departments. He is on the Community Emergency Response Team and often recruits members to support the Red Cross. His efforts help ensure the Red Cross is there for his community that he cares deeply about, Matayoshi said.
While grateful and appreciative of the honor, Kaneo said he’s embarrassed by all the attention because his preference is to be incognito. However, by being in the spotlight, he hopes it inspires others to get involved with the Red Cross, take a class or at least learn more about what the organization does not just on the mainland or worldwide, but also in their community. He stressed dependable, self-reliant volunteers are always being sought.
The Red Cross provides assistance to meet the immediate needs of those affected by disasters. The organization responds to more than 70,000 disasters annually throughout the United States and one every four days in Hawaii. All its assistance is free for disaster victims. The Red Cross has a Congressional mandate to provide certain emergency service to the American public, but it’s not a government agency; it depends on public contributions to help others, Matayoshi said.
Kaneo said that 11 years ago a friend invited him to attend a free disaster class offered by the Red Cross, which piqued his interest in the organization. Because of his extensive knowledge of the area and his four-wheel-drive vehicle, Kaneo thought he could be an asset — something he has proved countless times, according to Red Cross officials.
Kaneo said he still follows the advice his grandparents gave him long ago: “Education is key. Once you have education, do community service.”
Though unpaid and always on call, Kaneo said his position is filled with action, though it’s not always constant. It’s not uncommon for there to be spells of two to three months of quiet followed by one emergency after the other. Usually, he and his team respond to fires, especially situations where houses are completely burned and occupants are left on the sidewalk.
Kaneo said he gets to see things not seen by everyone, including the true meaning of kindness. There are a lot of good people willing and happy to help, he added.
For more information, call 739-8109 or visit hawaiiredcross.org.