South Kona woman on 20-year mission to open transitional home for domestic violence victims

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While working for 14 years as a receptionist in Kona Community Hospital’s emergency department, Helen Vailu’u was saddened to see the same women repeatedly coming in for treatment with black eyes, fat lips, fractured ribs and broken arms.

She remembers the cycle: the women leave the hospital and go to a domestic violence shelter, only to return to the hospital three or four months later with new injuries.

“It hit me in the gut,” Vailu’u said.

Helen Vailu’u (right) works with volunteers at King’s Daughter’s Ministry Thrift Store in Kealakekua, which she started to help victims of domestic violence. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

In 2003, in the beginning of her 2001 to 2015 stint working at the hospital, she began volunteering at the state-run Domestic Violence Shelter for Women and Children in West Hawaiʻi.

It was the start of her life’s dedication, now 20 years and counting, to open a transitional home for victims of domestic violence and their children to have a safe space to heal and receive the emotional help needed to rebuild their lives.

It has not come easy. Over the years, the 61-year-old Vailu’u has submitted proposals for the project to about eight property owners but has gotten nowhere.


“It’s been rejection, rejection, rejection,” Vailu’u said. “Everywhere I go, it’s a slap in the face.”

Now, she has hope.

Vailu’u currently has her eye on a piece of property in West Hawai‘i that she believes would be perfect for the area’s first transitional housing for domestic violence victims. There are two houses — seven bedrooms between them — on about 7 acres. The property also has beds for planting vegetables, macadamia nut trees and fruit trees. And, it has sheds for utilities that could be converted to rooms.

Vailu’u said it has a gated road and the entire property is fenced in. The price is about $700,000.

“If we don’t get this house, shame on everybody,” Vailu’u said. “This is going to change people’s lives and their children. We need this safe, beautiful land.”


In 2004, Vailu’u started the nonprofit King’s Daughter’s Ministry, and a thrift store by the same name in Kealakekua, which provides battered women with necessities — clothes, food, toys and even airfare.

She had hoped income from the thrift store would help pay for a home, but with the immediate needs of the people Vailu’u often gives things away. Between that and the surrounding thrift stores in the area, resulting in a decline of revenue, it has made it impossible to save anything for her project.

So in December, Vailu’u launched a campaign to raise $900,000 to purchase the property and operate it. The home would also provide direct services, psychological and emotional support, and legal help, including with restraining orders, Vailu’u said.

Rebekah Mraz, director of the Child and Family Service Kona office, said she is currently looking for government funding for transitional housing for women fleeing domestic violence in West Hawai‘i.

But Mraz is not in communication with Vailu’u. The agency would not comment further on the subject.


Vailu’u is not waiting for the government. She said: “I know how these women feel and I’m passionate to help them get out of this vicious cycle.”

As a child, she said she was abused for years until she was 15.

“I want to be there for them because no one was there for me,” she said.

The urgency for the transitional home was heightened for Vailu’u after she learned about an apparent murder-suicide on New Year’s Day in South Kona, where Elizabeth Fernandez was discovered by her father shot in the face at her residence by her ex-boyfriend, Garret Kaleohano.

The 42-year-old Fernandez had filed a temporary restraining order against Kaleohano, who also was found dead by an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Vailu’u said this is another example of a woman not having a safe place to go to, even with a restraining order.

“This is sad and shameful,” she said.

Vailu’u said she learned about the need for transitional housing not long after she began volunteering at the state’s domestic violence shelter. The victims were only given 90 days to stay there, although that has since been extended to 120 days.

She said that is not enough time to heal. She is still dealing with her own trauma suffered decades earlier.

Vailu’u has spent thousands of dollars of her own money to make this home a reality. In 2004, she started the nonprofit King’s Daughter’s Ministry and the thrift store, which became a hub for those in need of clothing, toys, dishes, small kitchen appliances and more.

Last year, Vailu’u spent $9,000 of her own money to help people pay for gas, rent, diapers, baby formula and airfare for women needing to flee the island. She also has brought her own treasures, including crystal glasses and an antique teapot, to be sold at the store.

Vailu’u also reaches out to many people in need, providing holiday meal giveaways and Christmas toy drives.

Mia Crivello, an advocate at the women’s shelter, said Vailu’u’s vision for the home would be a game changer for those trying to escape a bad situation.

She said most victims who go to shelters don’t know where to go after the 120 days is done.

She said: “They don’t want to go back [to the abusive situation] and they end up homeless and starving.”

Editor’s note: This story was edited to correct the title of Child and Family Service, which is not a state agency.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a full-time reporter for Pacific Media Group. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.

Tiffany can be reached at [email protected].
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