Serafin Palomares didn’t have any words, Wednesday, but the grateful hug he gave his sister, Avon Palomares, said it all.
Throughout the ceremony Tuesday, Serafin uttered not a word, and even after receiving the award for the 2007 Rehabilitant of the Year from the Kaua‘i Branch of the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind Division, emotion got the better of him and all he could do was hug his sister, tears of joy welling in his eyes.
The Rehabilitant of the Year award was one of two presented by Susan Foard, the VR assistant administrator from O‘ahu, who was escorted by a contingent of staff from the Kaua‘i Branch.
Earlier in the morning, Foard was joined by Kaua‘i representative Roland Sagum in honoring Dr. Craig and Annette Nishimoto of the Paradise Animal Clinic in Kalaheo as the Kaua‘i Branch 2007 Employer of the Year.
Representative Jimmy Tokioka was scheduled to help Foard with the presentation to Serafin, but due to an unexpected meeting, former representative Ezra Kanoho did the honors.
“The clinic wouldn’t be where it is today without Noelani Dela Cruz and Ashley Rapozo,” Nishimoto said. “They do a lot of the work.”
The students with learning disabilities were asking for an opportunity to job shadow and work in a veterinary clinic, states a description from the VR 2007 Annual Report.
The Nishimoto family said “yes” and the students were subsequently hired by the Paradise Animal Clinic. According to Nishimoto, the length of training was fairly long, but with patience, the Nishimotos taught and the students learned.
With the help of Annette Nishimoto, office manager, the students learned advanced techniques as they progressed in their jobs.
“This is what has been so special for my clients,” said Christine Bare, VR specialist, in her nomination. “They are truly veterinary laboratory assistants, capable of working with the animals, customers and the lab machines. Both students love what they are doing, and the opportunity to learn new things that keep their jobs interesting.”
Debra Matsumoto, employment service specialist for the VR Kaua‘i Branch, added that whenever the Nishimotos have a job opening, they call the VR office first.
Sagum said, “This is all part of trying to build Westside pride. The Nishimotos have not only given people jobs, but helped them build self esteem.”
That self esteem is part of the fire that showed in the eyes of Serafin while he quietly collected the accolades of being the 2007 Rehabiliant of the Year.
“When I went to Oregon to get him after he had a stroke, he couldn’t even tie his shoelaces,” Avon said. “Today, he has a thriving business and is living his dream.”
Matsumoto, who nominated Serafin for the honor, said when he came into the VR office in 2001, he was literally stumbling.
Clouds of doubt hung in the office, but Serafin dissipated the clouds as he attacked the obstacles, one at a time.
“Everyone is telling me what I cannot do,” he said in 2001. But that made him more determined to prove “everyone” wrong.
According to the nomination form, Serafin’s goal was to return to his previous employment in the food and beverage field, and eventually own his own business.
In Matsumoto’s nomination, she said, “We realized that due to his limitations, he would not be able to perform some of the duties required in a restaurant setting. He could be successful however, if the work environment was modified.”
When the opening in the Pi‘ikoi Building came up, it was like a dream coming true for Serafin.
“I need a computer. I want to go to school,” Avon said Serafin said after visiting the VR office. “Even in his cooking skills, he makes bread so he can knead the dough.”
That drive paid off for Serafin who, after a lengthy process, obtained his Associate in Science in culinary arts in 2005, coinciding with the availability of the space in the Pi‘ikoi Building.
With a degree under his belt, Serafin made the leap to self-employment.
“He leaves at 2 a.m. to start prep work,” Avon said. “Whenever the stand is open, he’ll be on his three-wheeled bike, all alone on the road. He even uses the bike to empty the trash.”
Today, Serafin, known to many of his patrons as Junior, keeps the booth immaculate and spotless so people can enjoy their sandwiches and salads.
“It’s all done from scratch,” Avon said. “When he can’t come, I always end up asking myself, ‘How does he do it?’ This is like fine dining.”
Avon said Serafin puts a lot of long hours into the shop, coming home after the lunch hour so he can get a couple of hours of rest.
She said Serafin’s other sisters help care for him.
“They couldn’t be here today because one has a child graduating in Arizona, but they’re really missing out, and they need to see this,” Avon said. “One sister takes him shopping once a week and another comes and brings him goodies. The other sisters who live off-island come and visit him when they’re here.”
Gary Heu represented not only Mayor Bryan Baptiste, but himself personally, in extending congratulations on the honor. Heu said people wanting to experience Serafin’s creations need to come early because he sells out — especially the soups.
“If you come late, he’ll smile at you and say, ‘Too bad, so sad,’” Heu said. “That means you have to come earlier the next time.”
Foard, disappointed that the award coincided with Serafin’s weekly day off, said the VR will arrange to have him cater a meal when they meet here later in the year.
• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or firstname.lastname@example.org