For Palama Settlement, charity begins at home base.

In October 1899, a freighter docked in Honolulu to unload food items. There on a pier those items remained for a couple of weeks before anyone touched it. A few weeks later—according to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin series that examined this in 2000—dockworkers noticed droves of rats acting strangely and dying.

This, asserts the article, is how Black Death found its way to Honolulu and into Chinatown. With a rash of deaths on the rise, all linked to the plague, authorities saw no other way around the issue but to burn the buildings that were connected to those inflicted with the quick-killing disease.

Within the first three weeks of January, buildings were torched on an almost-daily basis in what now is referred to as the Great Chinatown Fire of 1900.

But in solving this problem, authorities created another: The fires left many homeless, forcing them to relocate to tenement housing in Palama—and it soon became clear that it was more than simply shelter this community required.

To help, Central Union Church—which had a small chapel in the area at the time— recruited Massachusetts-based social worker James Arthur Rath, who moved directly into Palama and laid the groundwork for Palama Settlement.

“The philosophy of the settlement movement is that social workers don’t just live in Kahala or Nu`uanu or somewhere,” explains granddaughter and Palama Settlement board of trustee-emeritus Paula Rath. “They live right in the area so that they can see firsthand what is needed.”

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At Palama Settlement, community members have a safe place to take classes, play sports and learn life skills (all photos courtesy Palama Settlement).

There was a lot Palama did in fact need—medical care, hygiene, education and nutrition among them—and under Rath’s lifelong dedication, the community began to thrive. Money raised went toward creating a gym, swimming pool, classrooms and access to tools like sewing machines and ovens for home economic courses.

And in 120 years, its mission has never faltered: “To help those with the greatest needs in our surrounding community to empower themselves through promoting education, health and well being.”

These days, Palama Settlement continues to flourish, with programs that cater to participants of any age. An In-Community Treatment Program, for example, works based off of referrals from Family Court, and helps youth age 12-17 who may be struggling in school. A Community Services program offers another range of services that include everything from assisting with food and household needs, to providing gender specific services to helping individuals and families navigate through government agencies.

Its Recreation Division also caters to children, adults and seniors, offering sports, swimming and more at Palama Settlement’s gym, field and pool. In another corner, the Leland Blackfield Youth Activity Center serves as a safe haven of sorts for youth.

And all of that only scratches the surface of what Palama Settlement does for the community.

“From the time they leave school until the time it’s ready for them to go home in the evening, they have a safe place to be,” says Rath, “and there are a lot of other places they could be in this neighborhood … that are not as desirable.”

“The kids in this neighborhood, they live in the projects—they don’t have a lot of [physical education] in the school, they don’t have a lot of art in schools,” adds Rath, who teaches a watercolor course with her husband. “They just love coming here and playing football or playing volleyball or swimming.”

While many things certainly have changed throughout the years, some programs remain a staple. Rath points to the English-as-a-second-language courses Palama Settlement offers, which were available since her late grandfather took the helm of the organization. Others, like art classes and athletic programs, have also been around for quite some time.

Another thing that hasn’t changed? The ever-present need for volunteers and support from the community. Last year, for example, Palama Settlement began offering girls volleyball.

“It’s like we can’t find enough coaches,” says Rath with a laugh.

“It’s a welcoming place that I think serves its community well,” she adds of the organization.

Palama Settlement will host its annual gala, Malama Palama, Oct. 1. For more information, and to get involved or donate, visit palamasettlement.org.