Peer Counseling

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WHAT FIRST BEGAN IN A HONOLULU CHURCH ALMOST FOUR DECADES AGO, AS A WAY TO RALLY BEHIND A MEMBER WHOSE CHILD WAS BATTLING LEUKEMIA, HAS SINCE EVOLVED TO ENCOMPASS ANY LOCAL FAMILY THAT MIGHT FIND THEMSELVES IN A SIMILAR SITUATION.

Today, HUGS (Help, Understanding & Group Support), incorporated in 1982, works with close to 400 ‘ohana statewide as they adjust to life with a seriously ill child, offering support services for patients, parents and siblings alike—for however long their medical journey may be.

Connecting with families via a referral system (at Tripler Army Medical Cen- ter, Kaiser Permanente and Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children), among the many ways the nonprofit organization lends a helping hand is with peer-support networks that provide opportunities to learn and find comfort in shared experiences. As HUGS Executive Director Joan Naguwa points out, it can be quite meaningful at times to simply know that another person has traveled down an identical path.

“To know that you can have peers who really understand what it’s like to walk in those shoes makes a huge difference for our families,” Naguwa adds, “and even for the kids—for them to know that they are not alone … there’s other kids who have a brother or sister who are very sick.”

To that end, the organization puts on events that cater specifically to moms and dads, which includes respite care to give parents much-needed breaks. In keeping everyone top-of-mind, HUGS also organizes gatherings for the entire family, as well as those solely for the siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses.

“As a parent … we feel a lot of guilt because a lot of our time, attention and focus is often on the child that has special medical needs … just because that’s what’s needed, and then, we feel badly that we’ve overlooked our other children,” says Bonny Colunga, whose family has been utilizing HUGS services for the past few years, after the youngest of her three children was diagnosed with infantile spasms. “HUGS has done an excellent job at creating special events for all the children.”

Beyond that, the organization also steps in with financial assistance, thanks to the aid of a grant, providing a small stipend for those who come to O‘ahu for medical care. In other instances, when only one parent can journey with their child to the mainland for hospital treatment, HawaiianMiles donations allow HUGS to help send another family member for support. A case management program, meanwhile, ensures that resources are always available.

And none of it, says Naguwa, would be possible without the contributions of its biggest cheerleaders who steadfastly back its efforts.

“We are very dependent on the community to support all of our programs,” she says. “It’s all local funding and local donations that we receive.”

Of course, in addition to providing financial aid, HUGS welcomes volunteers who might lend their time to helping out with its respite program or at functions.

“There’s a wide array of what people can do,” she says, adding that the organization also hopes to expand its outreach on neighbor islands.

For her part, Naguwa has been with HUGS for six years, having worked with nonprofits for four decades—and to say it has been a positive experience would be an understatement, to hear her tell it.

“The families are grateful for what we provide them,” she says. “You develop close relationships with them as well, and you can really see the impact of putting together one of our monthly activities—how happy it makes the kids, how much at peace the families become so that they can take the next day and the challenges that come the next day.

“The work is very, very meaningful and impactful.”

The feeling, says Colunga, is mutual. “The journey that we walk can be a very lonely journey. Although my family and I are very blessed with wonderful people in our lives who support us in various ways through church, through personal friends, through family, being connected with HUGS has added an extra level of support that … we didn’t even know we needed.”

To learn more about HUGS, visit hugshawaii.org.

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