Talk Story: Lenda Helser

Lenda Helser moved to Kauai from Arizona three decades ago so that her husband could launch a sightseeing airplane service. Three years later, the single-engine plane he was piloting slammed into the side of Waimea Canyon. All three people aboard died.

Life, for Helser, was suddenly, drastically different.

Nine months after losing her husband, Helser was brushing a cane spider off her arm when she drove her car off the road at Kalihiwai. She fell 120 feet into the overgrown jungle. When she came to, she had one thought: “I want to live.” She refused to orphan her children.

The crash severely damaged Helser’s spine and brain. It also gave her fresh perspective and appreciation for life.

Now 75, Helser is having a ball. She collects fossils. Plays bridge three to four times a week. She has traveled to 45 countries — and counting. She also devotes a large portion of her free time to serving the community.

Helser either is or has been president of the Sunset Drive Community Association, North Shore Business and Professional Women, Friends of the Princeville Library, and American Association of University Women Kauai. She is the regional director for Science Olympiad.

For Helser, strengthening the community is a means of strengthening herself, too.

If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

Enjoy every day. There’s always something to be unhappy about each day but if when you go to bed you try to think back on the thing you really enjoyed today, you’ll be OK. That’s what I learned when I had that bad accident. I was in a really bad state, but I wanted to live so bad and I was so determined that I was going to enjoy my life. When I was recovering, the psychologist there said, “You know, you should be going through these stages of anger and depression.” And he asked me, “Are you suicidal?” And I looked at him and I said, “Are you kidding me? With all I’ve done to try and stay alive, you think I’d try to commit suicide?!”

There are too many things to get depressed over. It doesn’t matter if you’re Marilyn Monroe or Barack Obama, it doesn’t matter how powerful or how beautiful you are. Everyone has their fair share of problems. I am a great worrier. I will never get over worrying, that’s my nature. But that’s different than depressed. I’m having a great time.

What do you love most about Kauai?

Compared to Arizona, it’s so green. And as you drive around, you see the ocean. I can’t do all the outdoor activities that I used to be able to do, like snorkeling and hiking and so on, but I appreciate the scenery. And I can go out on a boat trip. My husband used to take me up when we used to have the flight service. He would get so excited. He would come home from work and say, “You’ve got to come up, you’ve got to come up, the water is really pumping, there’s all these waterfalls! Thousands of waterfalls! Gushing waterfalls!” It’s hard to make a living here. It’s expensive here. But how could you not love Kauai? If you’re looking for night life, if you’re looking for museums and activities like theater, we don’t have a lot. Although we have a little. But if you like the natural life and the scenic beauty and outdoors and nature, this is the place to be. We do have a bit of a traffic problem now in Kapaa. But do you know that when I moved here there was only one traffic light? It was the one there by Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’ve seen a lot of changes in these 30 years. But there are changes everywhere. Kauai is still the perfect island. I just hope it doesn’t change too much.

How did you become such an avid bridge player?

I love bridge. To begin with, it helps to ward off Alzheimer’s. My theory is, if you have Alzheimer’s, you can’t play bridge, so maybe that’s why there’s that relationship. I really think mental exercise is good for everybody. And bridge is a lot of mental exercise, and it’s a fascinating game. It’s extremely challenging, but there are a lot of social aspects to it as well. The most social part is on Tuesdays. We have the Dessert First club. It’s been on the North Shore for 25 years. I’m one of the original members, and I’m the one that keeps us all organized with a chart for each of the hostesses. We meet at noon. The hostess has dessert for you and then we play bridge. And that’s the group that talks and chats a lot and doesn’t play a lot of bridge. So we socialize together and as a widow I find you often don’t get invited where the couples are, and so bridge is really good because I’ll get included in a variety of activities and parties and things.

What are some of your other interests?

I’m really interested in gardening. I have had less luck with flowers here and more luck with bromeliads. You almost can’t kill them. I have orchids. I have vegetables and citrus and mangoes and pineapples. And, of course, the roses. I’m known as the rose lady. I give roses to the doctor, I give roses to the massage therapist when I’m lucky enough to get to go to get a massage — anybody. I give away hundreds and hundreds of roses.

I’m also fascinated with fossils, just because they’re millions of years old. I have a little collection. It’s not a big deal, but I really like it. I even have fossilized jewelry.

What sort of volunteer or community work are you involved in?

A really big, important thing to me is the American Association of University Women because I have this strong feeling that women, especially on this island, are not getting enough opportunity to use their education and to use their talents, and there are other things that they can do besides have babies. If you’re a college graduate, you can belong to AAUW. Did you know that Madame Curie was given money by the early AAUW group in America to buy radium for her experiments? From Madame Curie to the Wal-Mart ladies, we supported it all financially. And I think that’s the most important part.

But the second most important part is we’re not only doing a lot nationally, we’re trying to do things locally. We have a very small group, maybe 25 people. But there is such potential to do more here on the island. And we’ve done things like encourage women to write letters to their legislators about important issues like the terrible abuse of women in the military. We’ve brought in engineers to have an engineering day for girls and afterward all the girls wanted to become engineers. When I was in school, women weren’t encouraged to do science. And I was always interested in science. In fact, I won the science fair for the state of Arizona in the chemistry division. I was going to be a medical research scientist. But then along came calculus. I couldn’t do the math, so I became a teacher, which is really good because I’m a people person and although I wanted to be a medical research scientist it probably wouldn’t have been good for me to sit behind a microscope alone all day because I like dealing with people.

You’re also the regional director for Science Olympiad. What exactly is that?

With Science Olympiad, the kids are challenged to think. It’s so much more than a science fair. One of my favorite examples is called, “Write It Do It” and it’s when the children come in as a team. One child from the team comes in and there’s this contraption. It might be made out of Popsicle sticks and Styrofoam balls or pipe cleaners — all different kinds of materials that are put together and made into something. And they have to write down how to make it. Then that child has to leave, the example is put away, their teammate comes in, reads the directions and has in front of them all the things they need to make it. And they have to follow those directions and build whatever it was that the first child saw. That teaches how to write accurately, how to be scientific with your measurements. I really, really think Science Olympiad is important. It’s just such a wonderful opportunity for kids.

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