Billy Richards Navigating A Better Future For Hawaiian Keiki

Billy Richards, a member of the original Hokulea crew and several subsequent voyages, now is working to improve the quality of life for Hawaii children through the Partners In Development Foundation, including Tutu And Me programs on Kauai

E kaupe aku no i ka hoe a ko mai (Put forward the paddle and draw it back. Go on with the task that is started and finish it.) –Hawaiian proverb

Is life a journey or a destination? For Billy Richards, it’s a fascinating journey that takes him to the depths of the ocean, to exotic ports of call guided by the stars and to native Hawaiian communities that touch the human spirit.

Yet all the while he is anchored by cultural values that define “home” for him. It is both destination and destiny.

How does a Renaissance man balance traditional and contemporary ways?

To find out, we make our way to a second floor office in Nuuanu, where Richards works as director of communications for Partners In Development Foundation (PID).

Richards, 65, a Kailua resident, is a handsome islander with silver hair, mustache and Van Dyke beard that contrast strikingly with the black shirt he is wearing. His youthful appearance belies the depth of character, maturity and infinite wisdom he imparts.

He’s an old soul of sorts with a quiet sophistication that friends say makes him ha’aha’a (humble).

But today we hope to draw out his credentials and achievements that merit recognition. He would be the first to say, “It’s not about me.” We’ll see about that.

Richards has been involved with Hawaii’s voyaging community since 1975 and has served aboard canoes Hokulea, Hawaiiloa, Makalii and Hokualakai. He is president of the Friends of Hokulea and Hawaiiloa, a nonprofit that perpetuates ancient Hawaiian canoe practices by building and restoring vessels.

He is chairman of Ohana Waa, a canoe hui that pools resources and manpower to pursue voyaging ventures.

“I’ve always loved the ocean,” Richards says. “I was inspired as a youngster by stories of mythological heroes such as Vikings and Greek gods. My dad (William K. Richards Sr.) reminded me that Hawaii has its own legendary heroes.”

Richards reaches for a book on his desk.

“This was on my dad’s headboard,” he says of a volume titled Vikings of Sunrise by Sir Peter Buck. “It is about the great migration of Polynesians and the tales regarding the creation of man and the islands.

“I read it and thought to myself, ‘One day I’m going to sail to Tahiti,'” he recalls.

“My mother (hula teacher Bella Richards) visited Tahiti often on dance missions and invited me along, but I wanted to approach the island from the sea,” says the voyager at heart.

That is not surprising, given his European-Hawaiian ethnicity that suggests an adventuresome and exploratory nature.

He shares this spirit with wife Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, senior manager of government and community relations at Hawaiian Airlines. A former Miss Hawaii, this beautiful hula dancer who performs weekly at the Halekulani met her husband at an induction ceremony for lua (Hawaiian martial arts) practitioners. The Richards have a 22-year-old daughter, Mahina, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Sarah Lawrence College.

The exploration of the ocean and its pathways to the world led Richards to marine management jobs in the public and private sectors. He spent two decades at Oceanic Institute, where he served in program development, research, Hawaiian fishpond revitalization and administration of Hawaii Island’s Keahuolu facility.

More recently he was vice president and general manager of Hawaii High Health Seafood Corporation, the sales and marketing subsidiary of a large land-based aquaculture operation located on Kauai.

He also has been an underwater surveyor, doing biological surveys for environmental impact studies of projects such as Kahoolawe and the reef runway.

But his most socially sensitive link to his cultural roots and traditions might be the role he presently holds at the nonprofit organization known as Partners in Development (PID), an Aloha United Way agency.

Don’t be scared off by the word “development.” This has nothing to do with building high-rise condos and mega malls, although “building blocks” in personal growth and a social sense would be a logical association.

The foundation was founded in 1997 by Jan E. Hanohano Dill, grandson of a Hawaiian healer who wants to help native Hawaiian families and communities deal with life challenges.

The Kamehameha Schools graduate and Fulbright Fellow utilized his skills as an educator, political scientist, lawyer, marine scientist and diplomat to develop PID Foundation, where Richards directs communications and “putting us on the map.”

One of the foundation’s best known programs is a tuition-free traveling preschool called Tutu and Me, established in 2001. This nationally recognized program, active on Kauai, set the pattern of using traditional Hawaiian values in building stronger family relationships and community bonds.

“Tutu and Me is the cornerstone,” Richards says. “Our traveling preschool goes into native Hawaiian communities where there are folks who can’t afford to send their kids to preschool.

“It’s family-child interactive learning in a mobile setting, such as a beach or playground. Parents don’t drop off a child and go away. The caregiver stays with the child, then goes to a group session to get guidance on how to continue the education at home,” he explains.

“We find that many grandparents (40 percent among native Hawaiians) are caring for grandchildren while parents are working,” he says. “It’s perhaps been a while since grandparents have had to care for children, so it’s a new kuleana (responsibility) that needs nurturing.

“Most, if not all, PID programs require family involvement and commitment,” he adds.

The intergenerational Tutu and Me model is used by the YMCA nationally as a signature early education program.

Another program with PID branding and success is Ka Paalana (A Light for the Future) Homeless Family Education. This innovative program serves homeless and at-risk families on the Leeward coast of Oahu through pre-school and outreach services. Since 2007, it has served more than 6,400 families and transitioned more than 300 from beach to shelters.

“It employs seven former program participants, five of whom are enrolled in early childhood education courses,” Richard says proudly. “It is the first preschool in the nation serving the homeless to receive accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).”

The accreditation process is a stringent audit of scholastic achievement and accountability. Achieving it brings a priceless commodity: credibility.

Add to that last summer’s Innovation Award from Generations United, and it would seem that PID is well on its way to breaking through the cycle of obscurity.

“Even if it is Hawaii’s best known secret,” smiles Richards.

It won’t be for long if he continues to do his job and illuminates the contribution of PID’s 300 professionals, people such as program director Danny Goya who are “compassionate, dedicated souls who work miracles every day.”

Over the past 16 years, Partners in Development Foundation has developed landmark programs in education for preschoolers to adults, social services for families, and environmental preservation including sustainable Hawaiian agriculture. These publicly funded programs now serve close to 10,000 people in communities throughout Hawaii each year.

As Richards, the voyager and community crusader, talks about his job, we can’t help but make an analogy between his seafaring passion and social work.

They are both forms of navigating through life, through cultural and tradition, and the promise of tomorrow.

The man who made Hokulea’s first trip of discovery is now engaged in a voyage of another sort. He is facilitating a better way of life for struggling native families and children.

He and PID colleagues approach their assignments from the premise of five core values: aloha (respect), lokahi (balance), malama (nurture), pono (righteousness), and pookela (excellence). Just as Polynesian navigators sought the ancient secrets to wayfinding and the art of building sturdy voyaging canoes, so do Richards’ contemporaries want to preserve their identity and knowledge for new generations.

Smooth sailing, Billy Richards. May your Hawaiian odyssey be safe harbor for many.