Hawaii Home Makeover Airs, Questions Linger
ABC’s popular, heartwarming, primetime television show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, kicked off its newest season tonight with its 100th build: a brand new 3,500-square-foot house and a 4,500-square-foot community center in Kalihi. As host Ty Pennington crowed, Hawaii was the furthest the show had traveled yet to change lives for the better. In this case, the beneficiary was the family of Theresa “Momi” Akana, as well as the many native Hawaiian and underprivileged children and families helped by her nonprofit group, Keiki O Ka ‘Aina Preschool, Inc. Hundreds of volunteers and dozens of donors pitched in to make it all happen.
Of course, due to the realities of network television production, the magical moment America saw tonight actually took place several weeks ago. It was back in June that a huge crowd gathered in Kalihi to shout, “Move that bus!” There were cheers, tears, and all the wonderful things the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” series is known for.
There were also, however, questions about just how needy Akana and her non-profit was, and whether more than a few rules and truths were bent to make this particular dream come true.
On the same day the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on the ‘miracle’ in Kalihi, they also noted that the city expedited the building permit process to help the ABC project. Everyone from the mayor to building inspectors got involved. Considering the delays that everyday homeowners face, the special treatment raised eyebrows.
Meanwhile, at HawaiiThreads, when someone worried that Akana might need help to manage the tax implications of a suddenly valuable piece of property, someone else replied, “I don’t think they’re THAT poor. She must be making between 50K-80K per year. Federal funds, she’s the head. Can someone check into this?”
“Shame on you,” came the perhaps inevitable reply, as suddenly a heartwarming story was being tainted with hard questions.
“All of you have taken “niele” to a whole new level!”
Two weeks later, investigative journalist and blogger Ian Lind published a report that connected several more dots. Akana’s nonprofit had bought the land in Kalihi for $2.7 million just last year, $2 million of that coming as grants-in-aid from the state. Keiki O Ka Aina also received millions in federal funds, paid her a salary of over $90,000, and even paid her $22,000 a year in rent to house its offices in her former home. Lind also touched on some unusual family and business links in its management.
A couple of days later, on July 2, the Honolulu Advertiser reported on the numbers: ‘Makeover’ home recipient earns $100K.
As with the message board discussion in June, their reporting prompted a great deal of criticism for, essentially, digging up dirt on a deserving family. On July 8, Advertiser editor Mark Platte publicly explained the decision making process in covering the Akana’s financial situation.
Both Lind and Platte make it clear that they weren’t questioning whether Akana deserved the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” project. But they were pointing out the disparity between the story that was being told — of Akana as a welfare mother who used her food-stamps to buy snacks for the poor kids in her care years ago — and the practical reality of running a large, successful nonprofit group today. As Lind put it:
Although Keiki O Ka ‘Aina’s programs have received universal praise, Akana no longer seems to fit the profile of someone desperately in personal need of the assistance of the network and the thousands of local donors and volunteers they were able to mobilize.
In short, with fame comes scrutiny, and indeed, the arrangement between Akana and Keiki O Ka Aina is still being examined. And as recently as last week, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that the attorney general’s tax division is looking into the matter.
Under state and federal laws, terms of the lease must be at market rates or they could be considered “a private benefit,” which could result in significant fines for a nonprofit organization…Keiki O Ka ‘Aina officials said the show’s producers require that terms of the lease and other details of the episode be confidential until the show airs.
The show aired tonight, marked with several viewing parties in Hawaii and no doubt a few million happy tears shed across the country. But while everything got wrapped up neatly in 42 minutes in TV land, the story is far from over in the real world.