Dean Wong is a dreamer. Not the kind who sits and ponders “what if,” the one who truly believes that a person can make his or her personal and career visions a reality.
“I’ve always believed that anything you dream can be possible,” Wong says. “I’ve never not believed that the things you dream can be possible.”
Wong has and continues to play many roles on Maui. He’s a father, husband and active member of the Maui community. He’s also the Executive Director of Imua Family Services, a nonprofit that provides therapeutic services for special needs children in order to help them achieve their full potential in life. Prior to his joining Imua in 2011, Wong worked as the House Manager at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, a post he held for seven years. His Maui career also included six years as the Director of Prevention and Education Services at Maui AIDS Foundation. For a couple years, he was also part owner of the Green Banana Cafe in Paia.
As part of his job at Imua, Wong serves as the driving force behind the organization’s Fantasia Ball, an elegant fundraiser that will be held Saturday, April 5, at the Hyatt Regency Maui in Ka‘anapali. In addition to raising money for Imua, Wong says the Fantasia Ball is designed to increase the community’s awareness of the organization.
“It is definitely a fundraiser but equally as important, it’s a friend-raiser for the organization,” Wong says.
This year, the third annual Fantasia Ball will feature entertainment throughout the night, including performances by Maui Cello Quartet, Kelly Covington and Joy Fields. The ball also will feature a live and silent auction, couture fashion and dance performances, as well as a presentation from Mayor Alan Arakawa.
“Whatever event he puts together is always special,” says Fields.
* * *
Wong’s work is widely regarded as an asset to Maui, according to many who know him. “He’s tireless in his work; he’s tireless in his commitment to his family, to Imua, to everything he does,” says Naomi Tamura, who worked with Wong at both the AIDS Foundation and the MACC.
Others put it more succinctly. “Dean Wong is a superhero,” says Shawn Michael, Akaku’s Director of Programming, who is also an Imua supporter.
Wong is credited with helping to raise nearly $2 million for organizations in need. He has acted as host and Emcee for high-profile special events benefiting numerous organizations including Maui Culinary Academy, Women Helping Women, Pacific Cancer Foundation–as well as Imua. Wong says he hosts so many events because he doesn’t personally have the deep pockets to help all of the organizations that are doing great work on the island. “That’s my way of giving back,” he says.
When asked about what motivated him to be so community oriented, the Honolulu native mentioned his father, who at age 11 immigrated to Hawaii from China around the 1911 revolution. “People were literally fleeing the country,” Wong says. “People dispersed their families because they didn’t know what to do, how to get away.”
Wong’s father was left on a shipyard. He hid on a rice crate and not long after arrived in Hawaii.
When Wong talks about his father, the respect and admiration is evident. In fact, his father seems play a critical role in Wong’s own description of “The Dean Wong Story.”
“A glimpse into how a parent can have an impact on their child’s life that will change their destiny,” Wong says. His motivation to change the world was instilled from a very young age, Wong says. “His father’s school of thought was essentially, “you can’t not make a difference.”
After arriving alone on Oahu, Wong says his father benefited from the community of Chinese residents and found work in the kitchens of Honolulu’s hotel industry. His father eventually opened a Chinese food restaurant and made a good life for himself.
“It was 60 some years later when he was finally able to establish a life here,” Wong says. “The 1960s was really when his life settled down. Then he found a bride and I came along.”
This vision of an American dream–owning your own business, having a wife and children–changed quickly when Wong’s mother died in childbirth.
“My father raised me as a single parent, Hawaii style,” Wong says. “I had a lot of hanai family–the whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ philosophy is what I grew up with.”
When Wong was in his early teens, his father moved the family to New York City so his son could go to high school on the East Coast. His father’s dream was for Wong to attend New York University and pursue a profession–like doctor, lawyer or architect–that would give him the quality life the elder had struggled so hard to provide.
But Wong had different ideas. He saw himself in bright lights on the stages of Broadway. “That was my passion,” he says. So he enrolled in “the FAME school,” New York’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
His dream of performing created one of the first conflicts between Wong and his father. “I went through two wars,” Wong says his dad often told him. “I went through the depression. I came over here in a rice crate. I stowed away in a boat so you could have a better life.” A life on the stage didn’t mesh with Wong’s father’s expectations.
But instead of going to NYU, Wong decided to move to California and attend UCLA, where he subsequently graduated with a major in performing arts and a minor in communications.
“It was the first real fallout my father and I had,” Wong says of his decision to move to Los Angeles. “Theater was not part of his plan. He disagreed with it completely. He didn’t think I’d make a living at it. He didn’t think it was a suitable career for me.”
In hindsight, Wong says, his father was “maybe right,” though he says his performing arts background provided him with the confidence needed to succeed.
“Theater gave me the ability to communicate well and to socialize well,” Wong says. “I’ve known many who were absolutely the best at their profession but didn’t have the ability to speak about what they did in front of groups.”
Tamura agrees. “He can speak with anyone–young people, kupuna, smart people, people who are not so advantaged,” she says. “He gets his point across very well. He’s the kind of person that makes you believe in the mission and then makes you believe in yourself.”
* * *
After graduating from UCLA, Wong began performing with a repertory theater group. In a sense, it was a dream come true. But there was another dream that had lingered since he was a child. Wong wanted to see the elephants in Africa.
Growing up, Wong began collecting elephant tchotchkes from China. They became his favorite animal. As he got older, his love for the pachyderm grew. In school, if he had to write a report on animals, he would write about elephants. If his assignment was in geography, he would focus on Africa.
“In social studies, I would do projects on the African people because they lived where the elephants lived,” Wong says. “It grew to the point where I was determined I was going to Africa to see elephants.”
He got an opportunity to visit Africa shortly after graduating college. He applied for a program to go on a teaching mission to Africa and was accepted. At the time, Wong’s heart wasn’t set on community service. He simply saw it as a way to see elephants.
It didn’t work out that way. What began as a one-year stint turned into nearly eight years working in several countries on the continent.
“I was in secondary schools, in universities and in villages in the deepest darkest jungles,” Wong says. As each one-year program ended, Wong would re-up for another year. He says the original purpose of the mission was to help a child who had been selected to receive a proper education. But with disease, famine and lack of resources, the program became multi-faceted.
While Wong was in Africa, the AIDS epidemic devastated America’s theater world. Once back in the states, Wong found that he’d lost many friends and colleagues to HIV/AIDS. After years of charitable work in Africa, his dream of working in theater shifted. Now he wanted to fight AIDS.
Wong soon moved to San Francisco–the epicenter of the fight against AIDS. He said he loved the city, but missed Hawaii. Not long after he arrived in San Francisco, Wong moved to Maui and got a job at the Maui AIDS Foundation.
He began on the ground-floor, but worked his way up to be the foundation’s director of Prevention and Education Services. Tamura says it was his passion for helping people, coupled with his abilities and his drive, that served him so well. “That’s how he’s gone so far,” she says.
To foster his new professional direction, Wong studied at the Centers for Disease Control Institute for HIV Prevention Leadership. He graduated with his certification in Preventions Leadership and Strategic Planning and Management in 2003.
After seven or so years at the Maui AIDS Foundation, Wong responded to an ad to work at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. “It was an interesting switch for me at the time–one I was really drawn to,” Wong says. “I got a real strong sense when I was working at the Maui AIDS Foundation that government funding streams–how they flow to non-profit organizations–were dramatically going to change. I saw that nonprofits were going to have to become more self-reliant, more self-sufficient, and they were going to have to raise a lot of their own money.” He realized that event planning was going to be the next way community organizations were going to have to fund themselves.
The MACC was doing very innovative things in the performing arts field at the time, Wong says. He helped organize some of the facility’s most memorable events including two days with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the War Memorial Stadium. “It was a great opportunity for me,” he says. “That was a learning experience I could not have gotten in any other way.”
* * *
And it was great, until Maui’s–and the world’s–economy fell apart in 2008. So Wong tried something entirely new–while working at the MACC, he helped open a restaurant.
“We opened the Green Banana Café in Paia in 2009, opened Green Banana Frozen Yogurt Bar in 2010 and sold them in 2011,” Wong says. “We opened them because of the downturn in the economy at the time and I felt my job at the MACC was unstable. There were furlough days being implemented and the staff took a few deductions in salaries. I wanted to have a back-up plan in place just in case.”
But the 2011 birth of his son Valentino changed his plans. “Once we knew Valentino would be born, we sold the businesses because we needed the time to be with him,” Wong says. “The timing was all very serendipitous. The Green Banana Café did very well and grew exponentially in a short amount of time. It went from being a small hole in the wall café with few products to offer to a thriving business with nearly 30 staff, and often lines out to the sidewalks. But Tino is a much better investment of time.”
Which brings us to today. After selling Green Banana, Wong went to work at Imua. “So far, the position has managed to be a culmination of all my experiences, past and present, and really brings all of those things together,” Wong says. “I think I’ve always had an important place in my heart for the under-served or disenfranchised populations whether it was people who were of a different sexual orientation or people that had HIV/AIDS or whether they were a minority ethnic group or race or they were living in an impoverished third world country. This is another one of those communities. There is nothing better that we can do in the world than invest in the lives of our children. They are our future.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst & Shane Fontanilla
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower