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Education, Service, Aloha: Making Hawai‘i a Better Place

From scholarship recipient to foundation president, Dr. David M. K. Mattson Jr. understands the compounding returns on relationships.

Education, Service, Aloha

Growing up with a U.S. Senator as your grandfather may seem intimidating. But, according to the late Senator Daniel K. Akaka’s oldest grandson, Dr. David M. K. Mattson Jr., it was “so the opposite.”

To him, Akaka was known as “Pa,” and he warmed up every room he was in. Mattson remembers evenings when his grandfather shared what he’d learned about the constituents he’d met that day, recalling remarkable details about their lives and aspirations. “He always had some degree of … more than interest, it was excitement. He loved connecting with people,” Mattson says.

Eagerness to build relationships paid long-term dividends for Akaka, and all of Hawai‘i. “He was able to conduct himself with grace and dignity and a lot of aloha mixed in,” says Mattson. “And so where he maybe didn’t achieve a legislative objective, he was able to strengthen his relationships, building interpersonal support that led to victories down the road.”

Mattson experienced the power of ongoing relationships and support when he was a repeat Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF) scholarship awardee, which he credits for propelling him to achieve his MD at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

“Receiving the same scholarships repeatedly was affirming, like a personal investment and recognition of my worth. It really made an impression on me,” Mattson says.

It also led him to pay his own experience forward, endowing the Daniel K. and Millie Akaka ‘‘Ohana Scholarship Fund at HCF for students with a connection to Hawai‘i. “Now that I am in a position to help the next generation of students, it warms my heart knowing that, together with HCF, I can make an impactful diff erence for them.”

The scholarship is an extension of the work of the Daniel Kahikina Akaka Family Foundation (DKAFF), of which Mattson has been president since he founded it in 2015. DKAFF focuses on two pillars, education and service, mixed in with Akaka’s characteristic aloha. “In everything we do, we strive to value relationships and provide ongoing support,” says Mattson.

That means the foundation doesn’t just give free books to children year after year through its Aloha Books program, delivering 250,000 books to date to kids in New York (where Mattson lives and works as a radiation oncologist), Hawai‘i, Canada, Cuba, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Costa Rica, and Sierra Leone. It pairs that effort with Go Read, a program that sends readers to schools (with a virtual offering that arose during the pandemic).

“The idea is not just to put books in kids’ hands, but to engage them,” Mattson says. At the end of each semester, students receive a stack of books to read with family during summer or winter break.

Education, Service, Aloha

Other programs include a youth leadership camp where attendees create mini-service projects, building confidence to execute their own ideas to benefit their community. Wisdom Keepers is DKAFF’s platform for leaders from indigenous communities to share their stories. And DKAFF is always experimenting with new ideas, like an upcoming teachers’ workshop with a thinktank approach to dissecting challenges teachers face in the classroom.

Originally known as ‘Ohana100, the foundation was renamed for Senator Akaka only after his passing.

“He was not the type who wanted his name on things,” says Mattson. “The spirit of the foundation is to remind people of what he represented, which is not to seek personal attention, but to make Hawai‘i a better place for having been part of it.”

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