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Program that helps visitors following trauma and tragedy faces deep cuts

Updated: Apr. 14, 2021 at 6:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A 24-year-old program that’s helped visitors following trauma and tragedy says it’s in jeopardy of coming to an end.

The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii says it won’t survive past the summer if proposed legislative cuts become a reality.

VASH was founded in 1997 by the Honolulu Rotary Club when it realized that visitors had no aid organization.

Jessica Lani Rich, president and CEO, said she is shocked the program could lose its funding.

“We are in jeopardy of being eliminated,” she said.

Rich has headed VASH for 16 years, after spending four years as a volunteer. It’s an organization that helps visitors when bad things things happen including crime, emergencies and death.

“Not everybody can walk into an ICU room and hold the hand of a woman who’s on vacation while her husband drowns,” Rich said.

She has helped hundreds of visitors over the years.

In 2019, VASH responded to a skydiving crash on the North Shore that left 11 people dead.

Later that year, it helped grieving loved ones after a drunken driver plowed into a group of pedestrians in Kakaako.

Rich also recalls a child’s death from a hotel years ago.

“We had to watch the mother just mourn the loss of a child who fell off of a lanai,” said Rich.

“Any time an unfortunate situation happens to a visitor, we show up and we show our visitors that Hawaii cares,” she added.

Now the organization is facing a crisis of its own.

In 2020, it got $370,000 from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

That was slashed by a third to about $277,000 this year.

Now the state Legislature is considering cuts to the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Safety and Security Programs, which would wipe out most of the society’s funding.

“We see news stories about bad things that visitors do. I can tell you personally, because I’m in the frontlines in Waikiki, there are a lot of good visitors and I want to continue helping them,” she said. “I’m ready to have a plan of action to keep my program going.”

Rich says she informed her staff of possible cuts when contacted by Hawaii News Now on Tuesday. Lawmakers told HNN Wednesday they’re looking at funding VASH through a different agency. The bill to cut HTA funding is heading for negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

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