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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hawaii opened its hearts, wallets to 'SOS' campaign

by Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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"As a retired teacher, I realize the importance of sports in school."

Note accompanying a check to "Save Our Sports" fund drive.

It did not carry a fraction of the excitement that gripped the state when the University of Hawai'i women's volleyball team vaulted into the final four after a five-year absence.

And there was none of the controversy that surrounded UH football coach Greg McMackin in a season in which he was under fire for a gay slur and a $1.1 million contract that produced a 6-7 record and bowl-less postseason.

Nothing near the exultation, either, of Michelle Wie finally winning that long-elusive first professional tournament, Brian Viloria pounding his way back into a world boxing title or Shane Victorino returning to the World Series and winning a second Golden Glove.

But the "Save Our Sports" grassroots-sprung fundraising drive that has topped $1.4 million and continues to climb packed the most impact of any local sports story of 2009, rallying residents and expatriates to reach into tight wallets in the harshest of economic times.

Sexy, no.

Critical and defining, definitely.

It was a story about sports but one whose meaning went far beyond the playing fields to generosity of spirit and a refreshing sense of shared community.

Without it, the Headline 1s this week and for many more to come would be about the 45 public high schools forced to suspend their winter sports and cancel spring ones altogether. The talk and prevailing despair would have been about some 20,000 students statewide cut loose from after-school sports.

When the 2009 financial meltdown hit Hawai'i one of the casualties of declining state money was to be high school athletics, which were earmarked for a $1.2 million cut. For several years now as state funding has failed to keep up with costs, schools have used an assortment of fundraisers bake sales, car washes, Christmas tree sales and the like just to help keep their bare-bones programs afloat.

But with the hefty new cuts bearing down, Keith Amemiya, the enterprising executive director of the Hawai'i High School Athletic Association, seized the initiative during the summer, rallying a disparate band of businesses and individuals to underwrite what the budget cuts were poised to slice away.

"Almost every public school would have had to shut down their athletic program by the end of January, once the money started running out," Amemiya said.

After a handful of lead donations including $30,000 from Amemiya and wife Bonny set the table and word of the drive circulated, checks began arriving daily. "It snowballed," Amemiya said.

"Initially, I didn't know what to expect," Amemiya said. "I was cautiously optimistic that the people of Hawai'i would come through as they usually do in time of crisis, but I didn't know (for sure) because the economy has certainly been pretty bad, touching a lot of families."

By New Year's Eve more than 2,000 individuals directly answered the call along with dozens of businesses, some of which matched the contributions of thousands more donors. The army of supporters and the generosity with which they gave was inspiring. Cash and checks came in from all corners of the state and, as news spread, eventually from Hawai'i expats around the world, too.

When word reached Victorino, the Philadelphia Phillies' all-star outfielder and St. Anthony alum, he called to pledge $10,000. Victorino's willingness to give back symbolized a one-for-all spirit of the state that East Coast media found noteworthy. The resulting series of news reports spurred donations from Hawai'i natives on the East Coast, a contingent of Phillie fans and just plain folks touched by the effort.

Many contributions came with notes attached expressing support and apologies they couldn't give more under the circumstances. Reading their comments, Amemiya, who will shortly leave the HHSAA for an as yet unannounced position, said he came to understand that the drive had meant more than just a reprieve for high schools sports.

One note in particular, Amemiya said, struck a responsive chord. It came from the parent of a Saint Louis School athlete who expressed thanks for what sports had meant to her son while saying she wished that "his peers and others" who attend public schools wouldn't miss out on the same experiences.

Later, Amemiya said, he learned the letter writer was a single mom of limited means.

"That really drove home to us how the people of the state are willing to help out in tough times," Amemiya said. "That's what makes it all worthwhile."

Note: Checks payable to "HHSAA SOS Fund" may be sent to HHSAA P.O. Box 62029, Honolulu, HI 96839)