It all began in 2011, when Brickwood Galuteria’s mom asked him to check on his aunt, then in her eighties. When he entered Auntie’s house, Galuteria was shocked to find her electricity had been turned off, and she was burning candles for light.
“If any of them had fallen over, they would’ve set her house on fire,” Galuteria said. “I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ Auntie was an intelligent, well-educated woman who had been a teacher for 40-something years. When I started to dig, I found out she had been the victim of some really sophisticated scams. I also found out how little I knew about that predatory environment.”
That inspired Galuteria, who was a state senator representing District 12 (Kakaʻako, Ala Moana, Waikīkī, McCully and Mōʻiliʻili), to learn more. There are several senior housing projects in Kakaʻako, and he met with the residents of each one over the subsequent months to discuss issues that were high on their list of concerns. When he returned to his office from the last meeting, he told his staff they were going to put on an annual event for seniors at the State Capitol.
“I said we’re going to call it Kūpuna Power Day and have group exercises, blood pressure checks, resources distributing information on identity theft, Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care insurance and more,” Galuteria said. “We’re going to add some bling; by that, I mean we would feature top performers like Melveen Leed, Jimmy Borges and Marlene Sai, who was my receptionist and administrative assistant during the legislative sessions.”
Kūpuna Power Day ran from 2012 to 2018, when Galuteria left the Senate. It was always scheduled in mid-April, when bills were either getting traction or falling off the table. The event ran from 9 to 11 a.m., after which many seniors headed to the Senate and House of Representatives chambers to show kūpuna power for bills that affected them. Among them was Act 151, which was signed into law in 2014. In part, it appropriates general funds to the Department of Health for community-based services and programs for older people.
Twenty-three half-hour Kūpuna Power TV episodes aired on ʻŌlelo Community Media between March 2014 and April 2015 (they’re all archived on YouTube). Topics range from fall prevention to assistive devices to interviews with officials from the state’s Executive Office on Aging and the City & County of Honolulu’s Elderly Affairs Division.
After Galuteria ended his decade of service in the Senate in 2018, he took time off to recharge, and Kūpuna Power went dormant. “I thought we accomplished some great things with it, and I had no intention of reviving it,” he said. “Then, later that year I bumped into McKenna.”
At the time, McKenna Maduli, who hosts the Talk Story show on K5 and KHNL, was developing local content for Hawaiʻi News Now. “She knew I had done a program on ʻŌlelo that was for and about seniors, and she asked if I wanted to do it again on her stations,” Galuteria said. “My initial reaction was, ʻThat’s a nice thought; perhaps we’ll get around to it one day.’” He attended a few meetings to explore possibilities, but things didn’t go further than that.
Fast-forward more than a year to February 2020. Galuteria was finally ready to get the ball rolling for Kūpuna Power’s relaunch, so he assembled a crew and produced two half-hour TV pilots. Pleased with the results, he was on the verge of marketing them.
“Then mid-March came, and the world turned upside-down,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, I thought we would be on hold until at least the fall, but the universe had other ideas.”
First, he got a call from U.S. Census 2020 with an offer to sponsor the Kūpuna Power TV show, which, reintroduced on June 9, has spotlighted a variety of community leaders, including Ron Mizutani, president of the Hawaiʻi Foodbank; Jerry Correa, chief executive officer of St. Francis Healthcare System; and entertainment icons Cha Thompson, Carole Kai, Kimo Kahoano and Danny Kaleikini.
Another early supporter of Kūpuna Power was the state’s Office of Elections, which wanted to ensure seniors knew voting for Hawaiʻi’s August 8 primary election would be conducted by mail.
Galuteria’s team designed a “Vote by Mail is Kūpuna Power” informational piece and distributed it statewide in virtual and hard-copy formats via an extensive network of partners, including churches; AARP; Aloha United Way; government agencies; KTA, a Hawaiʻi Island supermarket chain; and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and its neighbor island affiliates. Smaller flyers were inserted into food drive and Meals on Wheels boxes.
“We weren’t telling seniors who to vote for, we were just encouraging them to vote,” Galuteria said. “We hope Kūpuna Power was at least partially responsible for the huge success this year with mail-in voting.”
Turnout for the primary election was 51.1%—the highest since 1996 when 51.8% of registered voters cast ballots.
“Kūpuna Power is about educating and empowering seniors,” Galuteria said. “It’s about helping them tap into resources that enable them to live their golden years the way they want to, as independently as possible, without worries.”
He may have founded Kūpuna Power (he jokingly calls himself the chief executive kupuna), but at age 64, he admits he is learning a lot himself about making important decisions now for the future; the valuable contributions seniors can make to society; programs that can make a positive, meaningful impact in their lives; and honoring their right to live with dignity, respect and aloha.
“Kūpuna Power is a pandemic phenomenon,” Galuteria said. “The train is chugging out of the station, and everyone is welcome to come on the journey. It’s a kākou thing. Let’s go!”