It is a Friday morning at Kalaheo Missionary Church, and it’s been a busy one for 25 kupuna.
It started with a short series of movements and exercises under the guidance of Janice Graham-Welsh.
Then, it was off to the sanctuary for praise, prayer and listening to messages based on God’s word.
Next comes time for a snack and conversation, and on to crafts. It ends with a healthy lunch.
June O’Donoghue loves it all.
“I get so much pleasure. I just say, ‘Thank you Jesus for not giving me arthritis, I’m able to do this,’” she said. “I wasn’t religious before I came here. Now, I’m into God. I’m into Jesus since I came here.”
O’Donoghue is one of many who attend the kupuna program each Friday morning at Kalaheo Missionary Church. It has helped ease the loss of her husband Jim, who died Feb. 28, 2015, at the age of 90.
“I think he knows I’m here,” she says. “I think my husband knows.”
O’Donoghue speaks with an Irish brogue, to be expected since she is from Dublin, Ireland. When she speaks, her eyes shine. On this day, she expresses thanks for the camaraderie, the people, including the volunteers and Pastor John Zimmerman.
“They come out and sit down with you and eat with you and talk with you as if they were your brother or your father or your grandfather,” she says. “Everybody is like one big happy family and all these ladies, all these people. Here, everybody is on the same level.”
She looks around at the faces of fellow kupuna, men and women, chatting, playing cards, laughing, and she flashes her warm smile.
“The moral of the story is, I’m very happy in this church,” O’Donoghue said. “You feel you’re wanted and loved and they want you to come back next Sunday and they want you to come back next kupuna’s day. See how helpful they are here? That’s the spirit.”
Spirit overflows at the 3-year-old kupuna program, held 9 a.m. to noon Fridays, at this Kalaheo church.
Pastor Zimmerman said it’s a weekly highlight to see such a collection of wisdom and experience together.
“The best thing is, the Bible says, ‘I will honor those who honor me.’ We’re able to honor our kupuna,” he said. “It gives them a sense of value, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging. For me, it’s priceless.”
He has seen the impact — spiritual, emotional, physical. Kupuna are inspired, lifted, guided, encouraged.
“Some are thinking, ‘My time is done. I’m on the sidelines.’ We tell them, ‘No, you have value.’”
He points out the lei, made by kupuna, that are prayed over and given to visitors to Sunday service.
“We tell them, our kupuna want to bless you,” Zimmerman said. “They go home with a lei made by the precious treasures of the church.”
In the sanctuary
Wes Cronk, kupuna pastor since day one of the program, leads the service in the sanctuary. He shares stories, reads scriptures, leads songs and encourages testimonies. He gets them.
One woman says her daughter is coming to visit and for that, she is thankful. Another tells of feeling better after a bout with an illness.
“I’m happy that the Lord is there with me and he is taking care of me,” she said.
Cronk, who keeps the service short and lively, says kupuna there are the pillars of the church.
“We stand in awe of the things you have come through and the lessons you have learned,” he says. “And God can use you while you have your breath. We can be an instrument of the Lord. If God touches us and heals us, that’s wonderful. If not, we still love him and serve him and be with him.”
After a few final prayers, the group moves back to the foyer for crafts and snacks, and later lunch. Some will take fruits and vegetables home.
Cronk is delighted to volunteer to lead them as best he can. His goal is simple: to bring joy to their hearts.
“I love the old folks,” he says.
Many are alone. Many have lost loved ones. Many face daily struggles. Many start to doubt their worth with their youth behind them.
It is then Cronk looks to give them hope, love and laughter.
“A lot of times, the older folks feel like they’re pushed in the corner, not important,” he said. “They have needs. This is a place we can fellowship with one another We can touch base with people and minister to them.”
Graham-Welsh is energetic as she guides the exercise session to start the day. The idea is to keep the joints moving, maintain balance, improve flexibility. They raise arms and legs, and pull on resistance bands. Those who can, stand and try some squats. A few use walkers.
Many of the kupuna are in their 80s and some, their 90s. Still, they push themselves.
“They do very well,” Graham-Welsh said. “Their balance is improved, they move well.”
Above all, she keeps it fun and cracks jokes to elicit laughs.
A personal trainer, Graham-Welsh has volunteered with the program two years. She has seen changes in seniors, once shy and slow to outgoing and spry.
“I’m so happy to come to Kalaheo Missionary Church and become part of this group,” she said. “I find that giving in this way is just wonderful. It’s just something I love doing.”
Shirley Matsuo heads up the volunteers for the kupuna program, which is open to those attending the church or have family there or from their sister church, Koloa Missionary.
“We wanted to take care of our kupuna so they feel involved in the church,” she said. “I don’t want them shelved and staying at home.”
There is no cost for the kupuna. Everything is free. It is something they looked forward to each week, a safe place where they can meet old and new friends.
Matsuo likes knowing they will be fed and can take home food if need be.
“When they come to church on Sunday, they see their pals, they pray together,’ Matsuo said. “They pray for each other because they know how vulnerable they are. As they get older, they get more vulnerable. They need a family and support system.”
Matsuo said the older population is increasing, so it’s important for churches to keep them involved.
Her dream is that every church will have a kupuna program.
“So what you do is small, but effective,” she said.
Richard and Kila Penman have been part of the program for two years. They’re returning to the Mainland and said they will miss the friendships they have established here.
“This is such a wonderful program,” Kila Penman said. “It has something for everyone. There is so much great fellowship between the members.”
Both said they’ve enjoyed the preaching, crafts, exercises and meals, and above all, the people. The kupuna program, Kila said, is priceless.
“I’m going to try to start one on the Mainland,” she said.
Kenny Reese is another who has been part of the program since it started in October 2013. It’s helped him spiritually and emotionally.
Friday, he was in a conversation with Zimmerman that ended with smiles.
“It’s a great place to go see people,” he said.
Kupuna Mary Shimogawa laughed as she and volunteer Aileen Kageyama worked on an ornament.
“I love this program. I look forward to coming every Friday,” she said.
Her husband, Ken Shimogawa, was at nearby table engrossed in a card game that was more about playing than winning.
“He loves it, too,” she said.
Mary Shimogawa glanced around at the room. She liked what she saw.
“We’re all about the same age — old people,” she said. “But for sure, we’re a happy group here.”