Talk Story with Malama Pono

LIHUE — D.Q. Jackson’s days are numbered, at least at Malama Pono Health Services.

The 70-year-old Kalaheo resident, who took over as the Lihue-based nonprofit’s executive director in 2006, said he will retire on Thursday in what he said is a planned transition that has been in the works for a while.

“It’s time for me to leave nonprofit management,” Jackson said on Thursday in between one of his last tasks: Compiling a comprehensive state Department of Health grant application by the end of the day. “I’m filled up with it. It’s time for me to turn it over to someone who is much, much, much younger and someone who has a ferocious amount of experience.”

And that person, Jackson said, is Michael Sorensen, a 43-year-old Portland, Ore. native who has more than 13 years of nonprofit management and fundraising experience under his belt.

“I have no concerns about this guy taking over whatsoever,” Jackson said. “When I came here, I was asked to do certain things. I’ve done them and I’m very pleased that it turned out so well despite the economic downturn and everything else that we had to go through, but now it’s time to turn it over to someone else.”

Sorensen, who moved to Kauai with his 16-year-old son several weeks ago, served as the director of development and communications for the Cascade AIDS Project in Portland, Ore. before he began his tenure at Malama Pono on Aug. 1.

“He (Jackson) has put things in the right step and we’ll be following through with the organization’s mission in the way that its currently set up unless the world changes in some drastic way,” Sorensen said.

In the several weeks that he has been on Kauai, Sorensen said he has had a crash course experience in learning about how Malama Pono operates as well as other things, including the island’s brief brush with Tropical Storm Flossie.

“I’ve never lived in a place where a hurricane was possible, so that was a new experience for me — listening to my neighbors give me advise about what to do and what should be in 72-hour kits here,” Sorensen said.

But Sorensen said experience overall on Kauai has been a positive one.

“I have a really strong love for the ocean, so I made my son go and lie on the beach with me and play in the waves,” Sorensen said. “I haven’t learned how to surf yet, or anything like that, but I hope to — I’m a little afraid of scuba diving.”

Jackson, who has lived on Kauai for 30 years, said he plans to stay on Kauai and help run the Jackson Clark Galleries that he and his longtime partner, Ron Clark, own in Kapaa’s Coconut MarketPlace and Old Koloa Town.

But his departure from Malama Pono, Jackson said, does not mean that he will not continue to be an active in nonprofit and political circles.

Jackson has even been approached several times to be a candidate for the Kauai County Council. It is an offer that seems fitting since he has, over the years, worked on the campaigns for almost everyone on the current council.

“I like fundraising, so I’ve been asked by a couple agencies to assist them — perhaps on a contractual basis — with fundraising,” Jackson said. “I’ll continue working for nonprofits in the area and assisting with fundraising. There’s always a need for that but at a much reduced level. It’s time to slow down.”  

Jackson said he is, however, leaving on a high note.

When he assumed the executive director position 7 years ago, Jackson said Malama Pono only supplied basic HIV testing services and was without funds and reached a point at which organization officials were unable to pay their employees.

Today, under Jackson’s tutelage, the organization is now back in the black and offers free, confidential testing services for HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C and offers support for those clients who have those viruses, including housing assistance, food pantry options and vaccinations.

“I was asked to restore the agency’s finances and make sure that it maintains a good reputation in the community,” Jackson said. “We’ve done that and as everyone on Kauai knows, this is a stable agency. It is solvent and highly effective.”

TGI sat down with both Jackson and Sorensen to talk story about the past and future of Malama Pono.

This question is for D.Q.: What factors have made this organization so effective and successful over the years?

D.Q.: The purpose of this agency is to save lives and we do that by preventing infections by life-threatening, sexually transmitted diseases. By doing that, we avoid a large amount of human suffering and ferocious savings in health care dollars. By prevention, we do no treatment — that’s the job of the hospital and the clinic.

Our job is to prevent the stuff from happening in the first place. The agency has been markedly successful and the reason is because our staff are not only well trained but highly dedicated. Basically, employees who have been here for a long time tend to stick around — this is a good place to work.

They’re not adequately paid because we’re a nonprofit — there’s philosophy that floats around everywhere that agencies wanting to help the poor and disadvantaged are somehow supposed to be just as poor and disadvantaged as the people that they’re trying to help. Most people at nonprofits are inadequately paid and they do it out of their sense of mission.

This question is for

Michael: What sort of factors makes Hawaii unique in terms of the agency’s reach and the amount or types of clients serviced by Malama Pono?

Michael: The immigrant community on Kauai is very different than the immigrant community in Portland, where there’s a lot of folks coming from Russia, Eastern Bloc countries and a few cities in Mexico. Here, there are a lot more immigrants from other islands, such as the Philippines and Marshall Islands, for example.

The diseases issues, behaviors and cultural norms among other immigrant communities here are things that I’m learning and are new. I was not aware that Hepatitis B was such an issue for people from places like the Marshall Islands, for example.

Kauai is also unique, because the ways of communicating are very different. The radio is super important here but the radio is not the No. 1 way to communicate to people in Portland — social media is much more important there but it doesn’t seem to have the same impact here with some exceptions.

What kind of changes would you like to see happen at Malama Pono?

D.Q.: My little soap box, when I’m on my soap box, is to get agencies properly prepared — you need to have enough money to turn on the electricity and you need to have desks for people to work at. This is a business even though it’s a not-for-profit business — that doesn’t mean that we don’t have expenses. And, unfortunately, a lot of people think that the money that comes here should go for our clients or people who are having a tough time, and indeed it needs to, but you also have to turn on the lights and have the funds to run an effective business.

Michael: We definitely need new offices — we’ve outgrown this space and I’d love to find a new spot. My opinion is that the Affordable Care Act is going to push us toward a fee for service process and I would like to see us expand our STD testing services, where we can do HIV, Hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia and the whole range of sexual health tests that a person might want in a confidential and culturally appropriate way. I would really like to see us expand that way. If that’s where the community decides that we need to grow, we’ll go through the process of deciding that both internally and with the board.

What was or will be your biggest challenges at Malama Pono?

D.Q.: The biggest challenge was the economic downturn. We lost several nonprofits during that time, including the American Lung Association and American Heart Association, and others suffered terribly. That was quite a challenge. We were able to weather that situation because of our collaboration with our sister agencies, the YWCA and Kauai Hospice — they brought us increased funding and a degree of strength through a very difficult time. Money is always a challenge.

Michael: I think one of the biggest concerns for an agency like Malama Pono and many other aid service organizations is the need for diversity by diversifying your portfolio of services. D.Q. has really steered that with pulling in Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C concerns, including partnerships with the YWCA and Planned Parenthood, but with the Affordable Care Act, many of the funds that would come in for disease-specific issues are going to be wrapped into the funding for making sure that everybody has health insurance. There definitely will be a need for our services but there probably will be different mechanisms for pulling those monies in, and it’s likely that it’ll look like a clinical billing process, which we don’t have set up.

My hope is that we can transition through the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. My hope is that we’ll continue to stay whole — as far as our budget is concerned — by going through that process and then try to build on our current portfolio of services so that we can serve more people with sexual health concerns as well as continue to provide community education and testing around Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B.

With sequestration and with these changes in how health care and services will be funded, we need to find either other funding or adjust the agency’s processes so that we’re able to remain whole. There’s only a limited number of donations and foundation grants that you can go after and if you’re experiencing cuts on a weekly or monthly basis, you really need to be ahead of the fundraising curb, so we really need to be more creative that way.

I also have a concern that sometimes if you’re a person coming from another community and into a new community, the new community wonders if this is a trustworthy person or someone who actually cares about our community. And I want to win the trust of the community — I want to be a person who makes a difference whether that’s for 10 years or the rest of my life. Sometimes people are afraid of Mainlanders and I want to do what I can to make sure that barrier is removed.

I can’t change the fact that I came from the Mainland but I can learn the local culture, norms and expectations and try to respond appropriately.

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