Ray of Light

Erica & Max Neves upstart foundation aids those in need during challenging times.

BY LYNN COOK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATHALIE WALKER

ERICA AND MAX NEVES SIT AT A PICNIC TABLE in their big backyard in Kaimuki, O‘ahu. Their young daughter and toddler son race giggling across the grass, playing “who can get to the hula hoop first.” The picture-perfect family looks like a magazine cover shot—happy, successful, full of life. Looking deeper, you see two parents who have turned pain into a passion to help others.

In June, 2009, 3-year-old Joshua Neves and his dad played all afternoon in the yard. The next morning Joshua had a 101-degree fever. After breakfast, he took a nap and his mother couldn’t wake him. Joshua was the first and only Hawai‘i child to die of the H1N1 swine flu. He died three months before there was a vaccine.

Max Neves says that things change in a moment, “First it is a whirlwind of disbelief. It can’t be true. Our family was as devastated as we were. Friends say how sorry they are. Then they stay away because they don’t know what else to say. You look for help, for a way to do what needs to be done. No one has answers.” Erica talks about the shock and the feeling of being totally helpless, not knowing the steps that need to be taken and being unable to take them once you know.

By the following June 2010, Erica and Max moved from total devastation to full-speed-ahead action. They formed the Joshua Neves Children’s Foundation, a 501-C3 non-profit organization. Their goal is to support bereaved families who have lost a child, and to provide them the assistance they need to navigate through grief.

Max says it took time, strong faith, the support of their church and the love of his wife to pull him up from dispair. “What families don’t consider, don’t ever plan for, is the loss of a child,” says Max, explaining that beyond the emotional grief is the financial crisis caused by funeral expenses and burial. “The fact is, most of us parents don’t have life insurance on our kids.” Erica describes the “nightmare” moment when a funeral director told her, “we don’t have a casket that size, we have to special order it.” Looking at $10,000 to $15,000 in costs, the couple decided that this shouldn’t happen to other families.

With the foundation in place the couple added fundraising and “friendraising” to their already full lives. Doing research, they found many agencies and organizations that could help when a child was seriously ill. They found no one with the mission to help with loss. Max says they became detectives. “We were pro-active. We would see a tragedy reported in the newspaper, and knowing what the parents would be going through, we would start asking if anyone knew the family.” Many of the families have lost teenagers. The foundation assists with the loss of a child, from newborn to age 24. Often the loss is a high-profile news story. Keeping everything confidential is a serious commitment.

Once the connection is made, the foundation finds cash to help with immediate costs, ranging from $500 to $1,500. Needs range from transporting family from neighbor islands to something as seemingly simple as a mom asking for money for a bus pass so she could visit her daughter in intensive care. “Heartbreaking needs,” Max says, “but joyous when we can take even one worry from a family.”

Beyond cash, families need comforting and a place to grieve. Expanding their horizons, Erica and Max created what will be an annual remembrance gathering in December. More than 100 people attended the first event, placing photo ornaments of lost loved ones on the tree. The foundation provided food and volunteers to serve and, Max says, “a safe place to cry, scream and begin to heal.” They plan three picnics a year and hold monthly meetings where a dozen or more people show up to share comfort.

Where do they get money? One source is their annual golf tournament each July at Hawaii Prince Golf Club. The Platinum Sponsor is Akamai Roofing. The president, Newton Young, doesn’t golf, but he is Max’s boss. “The support from my company is amazing. For six months after we lost Joshua I was a zombie. They stood by me.” Erica was the regional communications manager for Starwood Hotels, then the director of tourism for Ala Moana Center. From the time Joshua was born she was a stay-at-home mom. She still stays home with their two children, but her day job also includes running the Joshua Neves Children’s Foundation from her kitchen table. “Someday,” Max says, “Erica may have staff.” She agrees, voicing the dream that they will have funds to help the hundreds of parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters needing assistance and a finding a foundation that cares. www.nevesfoundation.org

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