When the phone rings at Jessica Lani Rich’s office, it can be a really bad thing. And her phone rings a lot. Sometimes, the police call to tell her about a crime or a tragic accident. Other times, a social worker will call about an illness, an injury or even a death. And each time she answers the phone, Jessica answers the call. As president and CEO of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i (VASH), Jessica leads a team of trained volunteers who provide comfort and support to visitors who have been victims of a crime or other adversity, and help them create a positive memory of their stay in our islands.
E Komo Mai: Welcome
Born in Hawai‘i and part Native Hawaiian, Jessica Lani Rich has devoted her life to helping others. For more than 20 years, she’s come to the aid of travelers who’ve found themselves in crisis thousands of miles from home — serving as chairman of the board at VASH for three years before becoming president and CEO.
“I care about our visitors,” says Jessica. “They’re hard-working people who save their money all year to visit Hawai‘i.” And the last thing they should expect is to be involved in a crime or an accident. But when something bad happens, the staff and volunteers at VASH do their best to make the travelers feel comforted, cared for and welcomed.
In 2019, the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i was called on to assist 1,897 visitors for incidents of theft, robbery, car break-ins, medical emergencies, drownings, near-drownings, deaths and more. “At first, people are angry or crying or distraught,” Jessica says. “You know, when they take your wallet and you’re on vacation, you feel violated. And when you feel violated, if someone shows up and takes care of you, makes sure that you’re alright, and walks you through the pain and the process, and makes you feel loved and cared for, you leave here with a different attitude.” And that’s really the bottom line.
“When we take one bad experience and turn it to good,” says Jessica, “the majority leave here feeling the aloha spirit.”
Scary Hawaiian Skies
One of the most memorable stories began with a fatal plane crash.
A 12-year old girl and her father, visiting from Seattle, were passengers onboard a glider that got caught in a wind and flew into the side of a mountain. While Ashley Streich and her dad were strapped in, upside down, unable to move for hours, the pilot died of his injuries.
As soon as Jessica got the call, she drove Ashley’s mom to The Queen’s Medical Center. “We didn’t know what condition they’d be in,” Jessica says. “Her heart was pounding. My heart was pounding, because we didn’t know.”
By the time Jessica met Gary Aguiar, he was near death and had been in a coma for weeks. His body was succumbing to the ravages of a flesh-eating disease. He had developed sepsis and was on dialysis. Suffering from multiple organ failure, the doctors had discussed amputating one of his legs. Yet, before all this, Gary was in top physical shape, even completing 43 marathons.
“He wasn’t expected to live,” Jessica recalls. “And we got called in to basically help the family.”
Against all odds, Gary survived that ordeal. And when he woke up at Kaiser Medical Center, he learned that he had been medevacked from Kaua‘i to O‘ahu, had spent 42 days in the ICU at three different hospitals, and at one point, had been read his last rites.
The first time that Gizelle D’Souza met Jessica Lani Rich was a “moment of truth,” according to Gizelle’s husband, Chris. A few hours earlier, Gizelle had been brutally assaulted and robbed by an inmate who had escaped from the Waiawa Correctional Facility. The beating left Gizelle with a fractured jaw and eye socket that five years later, have still not completely healed.
“We were in an emotional turmoil,” says Chris.
Jessica Lani Rich: Her Life’s Calling
The empathy that Jessica Lani Rich feels for travelers and their loved ones comes from her own experience. “I know,” she says, “because it happened to me personally.”
Tragedy struck while Jessica’s father was honeymooning in El Salvador. She learned that her father had passed away, out of the US, thousands of miles from home, and realized there was very little she could do. “I couldn’t get a lot of information,” she recalls. “It was really a lonely feeling.”
After that experience, Jessica joined VASH and sought professional training in emergency response. “Specifically, my area of expertise is travelers; things that happen to travelers when they’re far away from home. They want someone to communicate with them, comfort them and let them know what’s going on.”
Jessica became certified in Critical Incident Stress Management by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, the leading organization in training emergency responders from all over the world in crisis intervention and disaster response. She also received training as a Stephen minister, which helps her comfort people in need. “Part of that training is to put your feelings aside and remember that your main purpose there is to do as much as you can for that visitor,” Jessica points out, adding that, “The professional training I received really is helpful. And I work with the most tragic situations.”
In many cases, the victim isn’t the one who needs support. “Sometimes the loved one becomes a secondary trauma victim,” Jessica notes, recalling an emotional time she accompanied the friend of a 22-year-old murder victim to the Medical Examiner’s Office to identify his friend’s body so it could be released to the grief-stricken family in California.
Professional critical incident training has also been valuable in other cases, such as the time Jessica waited on the shore with a new bride while firefighters retrieved the body of her husband, who had drowned on the first day of their honeymoon. “You never get used to seeing someone in pain,” Jessica says softly. “What you do get used to is: I’m here to comfort them, I’m here to do all I can to show our visitors that I’m going to help them through this.”
“It’s not easy,” she admits. But fortunately for our visitors, Jessica and the volunteers at VASH are trained and ready for any number of incidents. Yet, if you look at Jessica’s background, you won’t see a straight line that brought her to the position she’s in now.
You might not expect Jessica’s career path to include radio announcer and news director, which she was for seven years at KUMU Radio. And you might not guess that she worked in public relations at Bishop Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts (now the Honolulu Museum of Art). But it’s those experiences and the skills she learned, and the people she met that have prepared Jessica Lani Rich for her role today.
“There isn’t a month goes by when somebody doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have your job for anything,’” Jessica says. “And I have two responses to that. One is: Somebody needs to be there when visitors are away from home without the support of their family and friends. And the second is: Yes, it’s hard work.”
But Jessica says this is her life’s calling, “to help people in their darkest hour; to let them know that I may be a stranger, but I care. And that’s one of the things people need when facing a crisis — just to have someone there.”
When Jessica Lani Rich isn’t taking care of others, she’s often busy with community affairs. She proudly serves as the Pacific region representative for Travelers Aid International. She’s one of the area directors for the local Toastmasters International. She’s been on boards for the Waikiki Community Center, Rotary Club of Honolulu, American Diabetes Association and Ukulele Festival Hawaii. And she loves playing the ‘ukulele and singing with the Mele Rotarians.
Jessica is also proud of her son, the head women’s basketball coach at Mission College in California, and her husband, who’s a retired editor at McGraw-Hill and part-time English teacher at McKinley High School. Raised in California, Jessica received her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from San Francisco State University and did her MA graduate work at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
As a passion project, Jessica produces and hosts a weekly television show that highlights people who are making a difference in the world. “I realized that life is short and I wondered what it is that I wanted to do. And I want to do something for our residents,” Jessica explains. Through the program, she’s featured more than 200 people and helped more than 60 nonprofits.
You can watch “Inspire You & Me” on the Family Broadcasting Corporation (KWHE TV-14, Spectrum Channel 11 at 8pm on Sundays) and on YouTube. “I feel that is my way of giving back to the community,” says Jessica.
After the Storm
“We can’t take that negative experience away,” says Jessica. “It happened,” she says, referring to Ashley Streich’s plane crash.
A few days later—with no injuries beyond bruises — Ashley turned 13. When Jessica learned that the teen was a big Elvis fan, VASH threw an Elvis-themed birthday party. And filled with gratitude, the Streichs decided to continue their vacation instead of rushing back to Seattle.
When they did return home, Ashley hosted a swim-a-thon fundraiser for VASH. “I wanted to give back in some way that I could,” Ashley says. “They had just been so helpful for myself and my family.” Jessica says she was astonished by that. “A lot of times that we help people, they don’t even say thank you and you never see them again. Here, you have a teenage girl, and she was so grateful. I generally don’t see that kind of gratitude from adults.”
Today, Ashley is still an Elvis fan and still grateful to Jessica and VASH for giving her family a happy ending to their tragic visit. “She took me from crisis and trauma to feeling like I wanted to come back,” says Ashley who’s returned a number of times. Ashley’s boyfriend proposed to her here, and the two even had a Hawai‘i-themed wedding.
“Knowing that VASH was there for us was a huge comfort,” Ashley says. “In all honesty, you never want to meet them. But to know that they’re there makes it a thousand times better.” And for Jessica, “What’s emotional for me about this particular story is that on that day, “They had just been so helpful for myself
and my family.”
Ashley Streich could have died,” she says. “One act of kindness, one act of caring in a life-and-death situation — this is what our agency is about.”
Back on His Feet
Gary Aguiar would need to spend several more weeks in the hospital recovering from the ravages of a flesh-eating disease that almost took his life. When Gary’s wife and kids returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, Jessica arranged for volunteers to keep him company and lift his spirits. “That was great,” Gary remembers with a smile. “When I woke up, these VASH people were around. And the best part was “just having someone to talk to. It was kind of great, you know? Couple times a day, I had somebody showing up.”
“When I woke up, these VASH people
were around. And the best part
was just having someone to talk to.
It was kind of great, you know?”
In addition to VASH volunteers who kept Gary company for weeks, Jessica also coordinated daily visits from members of the Rotary Club of Honolulu. Gary is a Rotarian in Northern California and Jessica’s a member in Honolulu. The Rotary Club of Honolulu, the oldest and largest of these clubs in Hawai‘i, gave VASH its start in 1997, in cooperation with the Honolulu Police Department.
Remarkably, within two years of nearly losing his leg — and his life — to a flesh-eating disease, Gary returned to Hawai‘i and actually completed the Honolulu Marathon.
A Moment of Magic
“Every time a business comes in touch with a customer is a moment of truth,” explains Chris D’Souza, who writes and teaches about business concepts. “That can be a good moment of truth or a bad moment of truth, or even a moment of misery. The moments of misery are the most dangerous for a business as this misery is contagious and can spread like a virus,” he cautions. “How the business handles a customer who, unfortunately, has a bad experience is important in this process.”
Gizelle D’Souza experienced a moment of misery when she was assaulted outside a restroom at Kailua Beach Park. Her husband, Chris, describes the scene as, “chaotic, miserable and uncertain.”
Fortunately for the couple from Australia, a social worker at Castle Medical Center called VASH and Jessica followed up with comfort and support. She arranged for Gizelle to consult with top medical specialists after Chris expressed concerns about possible long-term effects of the injuries. And Jessica also gave the couple tickets to spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Gizelle and Chris are grateful that Jessica was there for them — not just on the day they first met, but again a year later, when they returned to Honolulu to testify in criminal court.
“We really appreciate all that Jessica has done for us,” says Chris, adding, “She was our rainbow after the storm.”
“I would describe Jessica as an angel in my time of need,” says Gizelle.
“Sometimes I help people who say they hate Hawai‘i and never want to come back,” says Jessica. And after the incident, the couple’s adult children encouraged them to return home. But they stayed and enjoyed their visits to Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i Island and Maui, as well as O‘ahu.
“Thanks mainly to Jessica and the resilience of Gizelle, who did not want to let adversity win, we decided to continue our holiday,” says Chris. “And we are glad we did. In this decision, Jessica played a big role, and we saw how remaining in Hawai‘i would help in our healing process.”
This is an example of how, “a moment of misery can be turned into a moment of magic,” he says. “A terrible tragic incident like the one we faced was mitigated to some extent by the healing aloha magic of Jessica and VASH. Our feelings toward Hawai‘i are so much better now.”
Gizelle agrees, saying that, “Jessica showed us the beautiful and kind side of Hawai‘i.”
“We really appreciate all that Jessica
has done for us. She was our rainbow
after the storm.”
For VASH, stories of success can often be stories of resilience and overcoming adversity. And for Jessica Lani Rich, the true measure of success is in the gratitude that people share in return, as well as their desire to return to Hawai‘i, even
after they experience a crisis here. Sometimes, Jessica adds gratefully, “They even look at me and our volunteers as forever friends.”
VISITOR ALOHA SOCIETY OF HAWAI‘I – O‘AHU
808-926-8274 | JRich.firstname.lastname@example.org
Hrs.: Monday–Friday (except holidays): 9am–5pm
After-hour emergency number: 808-926-8274
24-hour: 808-482-0111 | email@example.com
MAUI COUNTY VASH
808-244-3530 | firstname.lastname@example.org
BIG ISLAND VASH
Kona, West Hawai‘i: 808-756-0785
Hilo, East Hawai‘i: 808-935-3130
DONATIONS: The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawai‘i is a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization funded by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. VASH is grateful to receive charitable donations from individuals, businesses and community organizations.