Building Communities of Aloha

Nate Sejalbo (left), who attends Easterseals Hawai‘i’s Adult Day Health in ‘Ewa Beach, is among those who receive regular assistance from people such as program manager Alexa Fuller.

For 75 years, Easterseals Hawai‘i has been helping those with developmental disabilities or special needs lead productive lives.

What began as the Sultan Foundation Nursery School in the 1940s eventually grew to include adult services, and with an expanded scope, came a new name: Easterseals Hawai‘i.

This month, the familiar organization turns 75 years old, and it has much to be proud of regarding its storied past and future plans. Most importantly, the nonprofit continues to do what it does best, and that is to empower those with developmental disabilities or special needs thrive and live fulfilling lives.

Amazingly, Easterseals Hawai‘i provides more than 200,000 hours of service annually to individuals and families across the state. Its programs, which cater to both children and adults, include early intervention, autism, and adult home and community-based services.

CEO Andrea Pettiford is among those eagerly looking forward to broadening the company’s impact in the years to come.

“We work with our community, partners, with our builders, and then with the board, also, to help us build the inclusive community where everyone is treated equally, and where our clients are recognized as the active and important members of the community that they are,” Pettiford says.

Among the many who have been positively impacted by Easterseals Hawai‘i is Danielle Yafuso, whose special connection to the organization comes not only as one of its board members, but also as a mother of a past program participant. When her son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 22 months, Yafuso recalls how the organization was able to offer her family its early intervention services, which included coping skills.

“They provided critical behavioral, occupational and speech instruction to ensure that my son will continue to thrive and remain on a path to living an independent and fulfilling life,” Yafuso states.

“This has been an amazing opportunity for me to share their service mission with a broader audience and also provide feedback to the organization with the goal of positively impacting other families,” she adds.

Pettiford notes that the nonprofit remains committed to assisting “people across their lifespan.”

Program manager Alexa Fuller (left) works with Nate Sejalbo on developing his computer skills at Easterseals Hawai‘i’s ‘Ewa Beach location.

“We provide person-centered services,” she says. “It’s really important that we support our clients to choose their own path, and then also support them in a way that’s most useful for them.”

Easterseals Hawai‘i’s Home and Community-based Services, Adult Day Health program and Employment Services focus on enriching participants’ social skills, as well as enhancing their independence. Things like using a computer and navigating public transportation are major parts of the programming. For a well-rounded schedule, individuals also take part in creative projects like art and gardening.

The Adult Day Health offering benefits more than 200 individuals throughout the is lands, and one of those individuals is Nate Sejalbo, who attends Easterseals Hawai‘i’s ‘Ewa Beach location.

In addition to implementing routines and schedules, being that the organization is big on community integration, individuals have the opportunity to go out and explore, and do things that any other adult would typically do such as go shopping or getting a bite to eat.

Whether it be at the center itself, or out in the community, Nate spends about 30 hours a week with Easterseals Hawai‘i. As a result, program manager Alexa Fuller, who’s been working with Nate for five years now, notes that he’s made significant improvements since being in the program.

Nate’s mother, Julie Sejalbo, mentions her son can articulate and express himself, but that sometimes he slurs his words. Fuller’s suggestion? Reading.

Initially, Nate told Fuller that he preferred not to read. But after seeing other participants take pleasure in the task, he began to show interest, and now enjoys reading so much that he even volunteers at a local preschool to read to keiki.

At Easterseals Hawai‘i, everyone is treated like family. Pictured are (standing, from left) Jocelyn Sarmiento, direct support worker; Alexa Fuller, program manager; Joel Dizon, direct support worker Maria Kyi, direct support worker; and (sitting) program participants Derrick, Charlotte, Nate and Gareth.

“That really helped him a lot because he’s challenged too, to read the three-syllable words,” says Julie.

She admits that if her son was with a different organization, he likely would have been just another number — just another participant in the system. Instead, with Easterseals Hawai‘i, Nate is treated like family. Julie shares that she’s noticed how the organization’s “personal touch” has helped her son thrive and that he even refers to Easterseals Hawai‘i as his “second home.”

“We’re just glad that there’s this kind of service around here,” says Julie, an ‘Ewa beach resident. “He really bloomed here. I’m just glad that he came here five years ago. It was the best choice.”

“It makes me feel very warm and it makes me feel very positive knowing that we make a positive impact in the lives of the people that we support,” Fuller adds. “But it’s not just us — it’s also Nate’s determination, and I feel honored to work with him and with others like him.”

As CEO, Pettiford enjoys hearing success stories. While the organization and its participants continue to flourish, Pettiford encourages the community as a whole to keep inclusivity at top of mind.

Easterseals Hawai‘i promotes independence, community integration and social enrichment. Nate prepares to lead a group activity for other program participants. PHOTO COURTESY EASTERSEALS HAWAI‘I

“One of the ways that people can do this is to consider hiring individuals with dis-abilities,” Pettiford says.

On that note, another area that Easterseals Hawai‘i is assisting Nate in is career development and job placement.

“We don’t want to just up and find him a job, we want to help him find a career —something that he’s happy doing,” explains Fuller. “Once he lands a job, he will have employment services on the job to help him. As Nate becomes more confident and competent in the job, the employment services are designed to fade out so that he’s going to work without any type of support.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity offered to him,” Julie says of her 33-year-old son. “It really is a very positive outcome for him.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of Fuller’s job is witnessing the development that participants exhibit through time.

“Seeing how much Nate has grown in the past few years — I feel happy that he has a more fulfilling life because he has discovered that there are many more things that he can do. To see all of the participants become thriving members of their community is something that means a lot to me.”

Just as Fuller has great things to say about Nate, he too, has a positive impression of Easterseals Hawai‘i, adding that he enjoys working with Fuller because, as Nate puts it, “she’s perfect.”

The organization is able to provide its services at little to no cost to its program participants through funding from various sources such as private insurers and government agencies.

Easterseals Hawai‘i promotes independence, community integration and social enrichment. Gareth is seen grocery shopping at a local store. PHOTO COURTESY EASTERSEALS HAWAI‘I

With that said, to ensure Easterseals Hawai‘i’s services are accessible to as many people as possible, the organization welcomes public donations. For its 75th anniversary, Easterseals Hawai‘i is fundraising to support its adult programming. Donors can specify how they’d like their contributions to be used, whether it’s toward things like supplies for participants or even toward the construction of new spaces.

“Another thing that donated dollars can go to is technology,” Pettiford adds. “Sometimes we can do more and interesting things in the program with better technology. It gives us some capacity to explore additional service offerings.”

Maybe best of all, Easterseals Hawai‘i has created an environment where everyone feels like they belong.

“It is incredibly gratifying and humbling to be able to be part of that process,” Pettiford shares. “I get to really feel like I’m part of that and also able to be of service.”

Fuller agrees. “I feel honored to work for a company that does so much good in the community. I appreciate having the ability to make a positive impact on the lives of others.”

Visit to learn more about the nonprofit.