As chairwoman of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center Board, Loretta Yajima takes the lead to help children all over the world succeed in a global society.
On a recent trip to inner Mongolia to help build children’s museums in China, Loretta Yajima was welcomed by the priest at the Daizhou Temple in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.
The priest told Yajima, who is the chairwoman of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center Board, that she was only the fourth American that he had met during his 50-year tenure at the temple. When she inquired about the other three, he replied, “President Richard Nixon, Michael Jordan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Yajima says she told the priest she couldn’t imagine why he would want to meet her since she wasn’t famous like the other three.
“He replied, ‘The humanitarian heart is more important than fame,’” Yajima says.
It was a chicken-skin moment for Yajima, who is gearing up to bring the Asian Pacific Children’s Museum Conference to Honolulu on Oct. 19-21. Educators and museum professionals from Asia, Europe and the U.S. are expected to attend the event, which will be a bridge between East and West.
“The theme of the conference this year, ‘Peace with the Heart of Aloha,’ was inspired by what is happening throughout the world today and, in response, what we as museum professionals and educators can do to prepare our next generation of world leaders for what is still a promising yet uncertain future,” Yajima says.
Yajima says conference attendees will share stories, ideas and programs designed to help prepare children to become world leaders in a global society. Keynote speakers are Pono Shim, Jake Shimabukuro and Maya Soetoro-Ng, with more participants coming from across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
“If we are to help today’s young people be ready to live in an increasingly diverse, more complex and interdependent global society we must help them develop an understanding of themselves and others in a world without or beyond borders,” she says.
That’s the kind of world Yajima remembers from her childhood. Her father, K. J. Luke, founded Hawaii National Bank, her mother Beatrice Lum Luke was a teacher, and numerous members of the family support many local community services efforts, including the Luke Center for Public Service at Punahou School.
Like her parents and successful siblings, Yajima isn’t afraid of hard work and she’s even more driven when her efforts benefit others, especially children. In her early twenties, she worked as a Head Start teacher in Kuhio Park Terrace. Yajima later worked at the University of Hawai‘i Lab School and Hanahou‘oli School. It was through her e˛ orts that the precursor to the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center that opened in 1989 as a small storefront museum at Dole Pineapple Cannery.
“Her whole purpose now is the children’s museum and the family supports her,” says elder brother Warren Luke. “Our family really supports education and we think that early education is important because it helps to set the standards in the outlook of people.”
Daughter Tiffany Yajima recalls hanabata days spent volunteering alongside her mother.
“I can recall my mom lobbying the Legislature for a new facility located in Kaka‘ako, and have memories of doing homework in committee hearings and sitting in the Capitol building late in the evening with her, my head in her lap, as we waited for key hearings and for her bill to get decked,” says Tiﬀany Yajima, who grew up to be an attorney.
By 1998, Yajima raised the funds to relocate the museum to Kaka‘ako and turn it into the 38,000-square-foot facility that it is today.
“My mom dreams big dreams. She built a world-class children’s museum for Hawai‘i. She is helping to build children’s museums across China. Now she is organizing an international peace conference. There is no stopping her once she gets started,” says Lara Siu, Yajima’s daughter, The Nature Conservancy’s donor-relations manager.
Yajima is effective because she is a master at attracting loyal, talented volunteers and soliciting in-kind donations, says Art Tokin, who has served as treasurer of the Discovery Center since its pilot days.
Liane Usher, who has served as the Discovery Center’s president since 2001, says her mother’s passion for the center and for the children it serves is undeniable.
“Spend a few minutes with her at the Discovery Center, her face lights up, her energy is electric and conversation flows freely. There is pure delight on her face as she sees families playing together at the center,” Usher says.
But Yajima’s efforts on behalf of children extend beyond Hawai‘i. As Senior Advisor to the Children’s Museum Research Center in Beijing, Yajima saw the opening of the Laoniu Children’s Discovery Museum in Beijing last summer. A second museum is expected to open in Hohhot in 2017.
“I was so grateful to be able to visit the museum with my son as one of the center’s first international guests, and to celebrate and enjoy the achievement with my mom and family,” Tiffany Yajima says. “To grow up in such a place, and to know and be part of its history, is to experience cultural diversity at its richest and most intense level.”
The inspiration for the Hawaiian Rainbows exhibit, which has a reproduction of the Wo On Store, stems from memories of Yajima’s own culturally rich childhood.
She also has worked hard to ensure that Hawai‘i’s children understand the role that aloha plays globally, says Discovery Center Board Vice-Chairman Michael A. Pietsch, who is president and CEO of Title Guaranty of Hawaii Inc.
The Your Rainbow World exhibit was developed to allow Hawai‘i’s children to explore countries beyond their island shores. Pietsch says she is now developing museum peace programming, with themes like “Peace in Me,” “Peace in My Community,” Peace in Nature” and “Peace for all People.”
While the peace conference, garden and programming are important to Yajima, really it’s the children who will enjoy them that have the focus of her heart, said Dana Nishiyama, who has worked for the Discovery Center since 2004.
“Loretta is committed, no, driven to making a difference in children’s lives, one by one,” Nishiyama says. “What impresses me the most about her is her selflessness—she is always putting others ahead of herself.”