Talk Story: Shirley Simbre-Medeiros

LIHUE —Shirley Simbre-Medeiros is chauffeur, teacher, social butterfly, field trip scout, taskmaster and all-around community organizer.

A kupuna community organizer, that is. Simbre-Medeiros is program specialist for Alu Like, a nonprofit group working out of the Old Lihue Plantation office that offers citizens over 60 with Hawaiian bloodlines a social scene.

They pack into the 14-seat van and head out on field trips across the island, they gather for arts and crafts, they go out to dinner and listen to live music at Kalapaki Joe’s. They live it up.

She knows that once she convinces a new member to join — recruiting is part of her job, too — they don’t regret it.

“She loves coming with you to the kupuna program,” a group member’s daughter recently told Simbre-Medeiros. “I asked her if she could watch my baby, and she said, ‘no, I gotta go to kupuna!’”

Don’t let her laugh, or sing-song voice as she tells stories, fool you, though.

She’s quick to point out the taskmaster part of her job duties might very well be her best asset.

“I don’t treat them like babies,” she said. “I tell them how it is.”

A big part of the program is focusing on well-being by staying active. It doesn’t require a certain percentage of Hawaiian bloodlines, only a birth certificate or document saying Hawaiian.

The group dances hula twice a month does health checks, and during craft lessons they count out the materials and strings of yarn individually, to keep numbers in their heads moving and their minds sharp. And if Simbre-Medeiros sees too much chatting, she’s likely to pull out more item strands to count out or quiz them on the spot.

“They count,” said Simbre-Medeiros, who joined the nonprofit in 2010 after originally joining in 1997. “They get physical, they get memory, they get their hands. And they’re still talking story.”

She left Alu Like in 2002 to join the TSA, a job at which she said she had “too many generals” before returning.

Besides, she missed the kupuna, she said. The group has around 40 members stationed in Anahola and Waimea, but outings keep both of the groups moving across the island.

“Seeing our kupuna happy, smiling,” she said of what she missed the most.

Last week The Garden Island caught up with Simbre-Medeiros to talk about the spending time with kupuna and becoming one big family.

TGI: What did you miss the most when you were away?

SM: I missed the people, the kupuna. … When they had an open part-time position, I applied part-time, three days a week with benefits, so I applied and they hired me. So, I started in March 2010 and when I went to the site, I wanted to cry because Anahola had, back in 2010, maybe about five (members). And then Waimea, lucky, had 10.”

TGI: What happened?

SM: You don’t have enough people to do the work, it’s hard, yeah? Because you have to do everything. … And you got to do outreach, how can you do all of that and still run a program? … What I did, I never throw away my old (contacts) and my old boss didn’t throw away my old briefcase … I used to do my outreach by territories … I would do every territory. So, I’d have a folder of almost every territory of contacts of people.

TGI: So you’d go one by one?

SM: You gotta a get a good strategy how to plan. Who has elderly? Elderly housing, senior housing, Hawaii State Housing … I tried to collaborate with them to see how they could help me so I can help seniors 60 and over.

TGI: When you ask people to join, what do they say? Do they know about it?

SM: It all depends. They have to be all dependent. We’re not a daycare. Because we’re short staffed, we can’t baby-sit. I call it baby-sitting. I look at them and I say, ‘Auntie, what you do during the day, Monday through Friday? We have a kupuna program Monday through Friday, what you do?’ ‘Oh, nothing, I stay at home.’ I say, ‘You need to come kupuna program. Let me drive you crazy for once.’ (laughing). I tell ‘em. ‘We pick you up from your doorstep, and we feed you, get lunch, we got all kind activities.

TGI: What do they like most about it?

SM: They miss everybody, the fellowship, you know? But of course, I’m the witch (laughing). I bust out the whip and say, ‘You’re looking bored. OK, I have something for you to do …’

TGI: You are the taskmaster?

SM: Oh yeah. Yeah. If they get sidetracked, then I bring them back in.

TGI: When you see them staying in contact, staying active, saying well and at craft fairs, do you see the difference and the benefits of it?

SM: Yes. When I first started, I said, ‘I’m sorry, all my kupuna get my number. I told them it’s open to them.’ … I said, ‘You call me if it’s an emergency, or if you need something or you have a question to ask.’ So they do. One just called me this morning. ‘Oh, I saw your number and just wanted to say hello.’ She’s 93. She has to go Honolulu because she’s supposed get knee surgery. So she’s going to be gone for a month or two.

TGI: She saw your number and was nervous and needed to call?

SM: It was getting very stressful for her … So, she calls. When I saw her last, I said, ‘OK, I think I gotta go’ and she said, ‘No.’ I stay there all night and still she didn’t want me to go.

TGI: Do you feel like you’re part of the families?

SM: I am. That’s why they’re close to me. They are really, really close to me. I do a lot for them. They have children but they don’t want to impose on them.

TGI: Why do you suppose that is?

SM: When I say something, they jump. I’m the person who tell ‘em how it is, don’t beat around the bush. I do things for them. I take them out … we go on field trips. Before I came back, they wasn’t doing nothing. When I come back, I take them to places they haven’t been since they were young or they’ve never been to. I have kupuna from Anahola, I take them to Barking Sands. I have kupuna who have never been to Barking Sands. … We go all the way to Waipa, to the poi factory.

TGI: They never been places, does that surprise you?

SM: They’ve never been out. … We go to the concert they have at the college performing arts center. I take them to Garden Island Barbecue. I got to choose their food, yeah, because of nutrition, you know, once and while time is OK. Or I take them to the Smith’s boat ride. And they love all that because they don’t go out. It’s different when you go out with your ohana versus they go out with their age.

TGI: Can you describe that?

SM: Because they get their cliques, you know what I mean by cliques. They get their own groupies. They become young again. They become active, they come out of their hives. That’s how I look at it. And I don’t baby them.

TGI: Is it like younger groups? They gossip, they talk, they chat, they laugh? They talk about their families?

SM: “They talk about each other. (laughs) … They have their own cliques.

TGI: What’s the typical reaction when someone joins?

SM: They quiet, yeah? They think they don’t know anyone. They think it’s for like, the real frail … But when they go, they say, ‘Hey, I never knew you was coming’ … and they start talking story.

TGI: You’ve said that it’s important kupuna don’t devote all their free time to baby-sitting grandchildren. Why?

SM: I tell them, ‘You know, you guys had your time already. Now is the time to enjoy whatever time you have.’

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