Thursday, June 16, 2011



I ran across a very special person doing extraordinary things for people who are  facing a difficult period in their lives. She has been volunteering with hospice programs for 20 years and has been using hula as therapy for cancer patients and their families. I wanted the readers to be aware of people like Nancy, who quietly go about their volunteering because she believes she's making a difference in her community and for people in her community.

Nancy was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. When she was about four years old, her father, Master Sergeant Robert Sweeney, was killed in Korea. He was a Silver Star recipient. That was one of the many profound events in Nancy's life that led her to the path she has chosen.

In 1979, when Nancy was 33 years old, she joined the Army where she spent the next 21 years serving her country. She would've likely have been the oldest person at boot camp. Older than the cadre, I'm sure. She did that to honor her father and joined despite her family's disapproval. She even took back her maiden name after her divorce to keep her father's name alive.

In 1991, her daughter Tiare passed away in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. from an inoperable brain stem tumor. Coincidently, Nancy's mother passed away just 3 months prior to that so it was a trying time for her. This was when she was first exposed to hospice services in Virginia which further molded Nancy's choices in life.

After she was transferred to Hawaii by the Army so she could heal emotionally, she underwent training through Hospice of Hawaii to become a hands-on volunteer. She underwent 18 hours of training and was determined to help the dying and their families transition during this very emotional time in their lives. She has been volunteering at every station that the military assigned her to since then.

Nancy decided to retire from the Army after 21 years and settled down in Washington State to complete her education where she received a B.A. in Psychology and another B.A. in Social Work. She did a thesis on "Death and Dying Across Cultures" in her senior year. Shortly after receiving her degree in 2009, her sister passed away as a result of leukemia and Nancy was able to put her 20 years of hospice experience to use in managing her sister's emotions as well as the emotions of her family.

Many people are afraid to volunteer at nursing homes or in a hospice setting because they fear that getting close to the patients and their eventual death will emotionally depress them. I asked Nancy about that and how she deals with the emotional ups and downs.

She said that she believes that death is a transition into another life and therefore she doesn't experience sadness when a person passes on. And perhaps she has a point there.

Many people look at life and death in terms of themselves and how these events affect them. When one is as giving as Nancy, it is about helping the person and their loved ones to accept death as a transition and only then, can she help them to let go of life.

Nancy still works for the government in finance as a pay officer. While she was completing her college work, she had to do 18 hours of internship. Since she was familiar with the hospice program, she decided to do hospice work for her internship and also included dance therapy for the elderly. Much to her surprise, she learned that many of the breast cancer survivors were young and not elderly as she expected.

The program worked so well that in 2009, the Parks and Recreation department hired her to teach hula as a form of therapy. Her students include people who are breast cancer survivors and well as family members of breast cancer survivors.

They perform at various public functions like the 2010 Dickens Festival.

Nancy's work has even been touched by a child who was the recipient of the "Make a Wish" Foundation.

Hula wish will come true for Iraq veteran's ill 4-year-old daughter | County G

The dance group dances under the name Kaimiola Polynesian Dance. Kaimiola is Nancy's name that she shares with her grandmother. It means "One who seeks life and to heal" and she fully intends to live up to the name.

Nancy has always considered Hawaii as her home and if things work out, may be making the move to Hawaii in a couple of months if she is accepted by Hawaii Pacific University into their masters program. If that happens, she will be looking to offer hula as therapy for the elderly in nursing homes and continuing her work as a hospice volunteer.

Hawaii will be enriched with the love and aloha that she shares. And our kupunas will benefit from it.


Anonymous said...

Nancy is indeed a wonderful, caring person and we are lucky to have her sharing her culture and spirit with us here in the Pacific Northwest. Wherever she goes, Nancy will brighten the lives of those around her!

Anonymous said...

I met Nancy on a plane from Honolulu to Hilo - she shared part of her story and I have been blessed to have met her. Blessings to all the quiet volunteers out there, giving and sharing of themselves.