Surviving Trouble in Paradise: An interview with the CEO of Hawaii’s Parents And Children Together

By July 24, 2020August 12th, 2020Newsletter

Ryan Kusumoto may live in paradise, but the president and CEO of Hawaii’s Parents And Children Together (PACT) has been knocked around by COVID-19 like everyone else.

PACT serves Hawaii’s most vulnerable and at-risk people and families. The nonprofit creates and delivers a range of programs related to domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, early childhood education, mental health, community-building, and poverty prevention.

During an interview with 501c.com, Kusumoto talked about how the global pandemic changed the way PACT does business, and how this novel coronavirus has changed the way he thinks about the world and his place in it.

How has COVID-19 changed the way you and your staff are conducting business?

Our services run the gamut from early learning, domestic violence, child abuse, and community building. Luckily, we didn’t shut down any service completely. We kept everything going and didn’t have to lay off anyone. In fact, some parts of our operation grew, because there are more people needing food and rent and utility assistance. We partnered with organizations that fund those needs. It helped keep the lights on.

Have any of your 425 employees been sickened by COVID-19?

No, we’re very fortunate. Many of our staff, primarily administrative staff, worked remotely from home. Now, we have an abbreviated schedule of work in the office, which minimizes the number of people in the office.

The last few months have showed us we don’t need as much office space as we have. We learned we could work at home and not skip a beat.

Which of your services is COVID-19 making more vital?

Domestic violence and child abuse, even though our numbers have gone down because reporting is harder to do.

This is the perfect environment for domestic violence and child abuse. Take away jobs, make paying rent harder, make access to food harder, then keep everyone locked in the same place. It’s the perfect petri dish for domestic violence and child abuse.

The regular detection systems have largely shut down. The workplace, medical professionals, and schools usually help identify a problem. There’s protection. But now people aren’t going to school and aren’t seeking medical help unless they have to.

That’s why we never shut down our services.

I always think of Hawaii as paradise. Is that a realistic view of your state?

We are the most isolated state in the nation. We’re separated by bodies of water, and there’s a constant shift and flow of what’s coming in and out. If ships stop coming, we run out of food and supplies.

Our #1 industry is tourism. So, the virus has made a huge impact on our economy. Overnight, we went from the lowest unemployment rate in the nation to the highest, from 2% unemployment to 22%.

Our unemployment system can’t handle it. It was daunting to see how many people were standing in lines for food. We serve people in the deepest level of poverty. Children usually get their lunch from school, but now school is out.

Has the pandemic changed the way you view your employees?

One of my mantras is you must take care of your staff in good times and bad. We don’t do this work without all of our staff; it’s not just me. When the pandemic emerged, I told my leadership team we want to look back and say we did everything we could to help our staff get through this situation. If we took care of them, they would take care of the community.

How did you take care of them?

People were concerned about their own childcare issues, and we were super flexible with hours. People were concerned about spouses who lost their jobs, so we figured out ways to let workers use their unused vacation and get paid for it.

We’ve been engaging and supporting our staff with online Zoom sessions. One day, we’ll have Zoga where one of our staff leads an online yoga class. The next day, one of our therapists does a meditation time. We had one of our staff talk about what you can do to continue to keep your kids engaged. We brought in our local Department of Health chief to talk about COVID. Some of these topics aren’t super-sexy. But it’s critical to maintain that connection with staff.

How has COVID -19 changed your world view?

I now think differently about my health. I used to think that my health was dependent on what I ate and how much I exercised. But the pandemic has taught us that our health isn’t just about what I do, but what you do, too. One person carrying COVID has an impact on our entire community. We’re connected to one another. We’re only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us. I’m worried that after COVID, that narrative will go away, and we’ll forget that we’re all connected.


About the Author

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a veteran content producer, e-book creator, and social media writer with two Pulitzer Prize nominations and three National Headliners Awards. Her writing has appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Redbook, Yahoo!, AOL Real Estate, AOL Daily Finance, USA Today, and US Weekly, as well as major metro dailies. She writes several times a month for 501c.com.

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