Home » Maui Behavioral Health Resources CEO to Retire After Nearly 30 Years
Featured Global News Hawaii News

Maui Behavioral Health Resources CEO to Retire After Nearly 30 Years

MAKAWAO — Jud Cunningham, a longtime leader of the largest nonprofit mental health treatment provider on Maui, smiled when asked why he got into social work decades ago.

“Being a service to others,” said the soon-to-be retired chief executive officer of Maui Behavioral Health Resources on Wednesday afternoon. “I always loved and always tried to be a social change agent, that’s what social work is all about and it can occur on different levels. I always liked community service.”

Cunningham began his employment with Aloha House in the fall of 1996 and is now completing his 27th year with the organization as CEO of Maui Behavioral Health Resources, which is the umbrella for partner agencies Aloha House Inc., Malama Family Recovery Center and Maui Youth & Family Services.

Retirement will begin on Friday for Cunningham, who will miss the meaningful relationships he formed and the day-to-day responsibilities.

The board of directors hired current Chief Operating Officer Nicole Hokoana to take his place beginning July 1.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as CEO for this great organization,” Cunningham said in a statement. “The best part has been the opportunity to work alongside so many dedicated and compassionate people, including staff, independent contractors and community partners, who genuinely care about helping others to live more fulfilling, healthy and productive lives.”

While sitting in a conference room Wednesday at Aloha House, a nonprofit outpatient and residential addiction treatment center in Makawao, Cunningham shared with The Maui News how being a licensed social worker has taken him on a path of many twists and some unexpected turns, but one thing was clear — he had “a passion for identifying needs” and then finding ways to address them.

“He was just so kind and gentle,” Dr. Lisa Ponichtera, clinical director of Maui Behavioral Health Resources, recalled of meeting Cunningham for the first time about 20 years ago.

From a volunteer at Aloha House, to a Maui Drug Court program assistant, to a counselor and then to clinical director at Malama Family Recovery Center, Ponichtera said Wednesday night via phone that “he’s just allowed me to grow.”

“He’s just really allowed me to be creative and help me in a way that taught me and allowed me to develop myself as a person, as a leader, as somebody that works in this field, and now as an administrator,” she said. “He always saw the bigger picture. … He’s just a very wise person in this field of social work.”

Cunningham has more than 50 years of experience in behavioral health and human services, including more than 40 years as an administrator of behavioral health organizations. His work took him all over the nation, including lead social work positions in the Navajo Nation, Arizona and Washington state with mental health and child welfare before coming to Maui.

Cunningham also taught in the Department of Psychology for several years at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

He has served on the boards of numerous nonprofits, such as the Maui Memorial Medical Center Ethics Committee, the Hawaii Substance Abuse Coalition, the Hawaii Job Corps Community Advisory Council and the Kahului Rotary Club.

Cunningham began his career on Maui in 1992, when he served as center chief at the Maui Community Mental Health Center. During his time there, he was able to bring to fruition the idea of community mental health systems, which was gaining popularity on the Mainland, but hadn’t gained traction in Hawaii, according to Maui Behavioral Health Resources.

While there were mental health clinics and resources in Hawaii, the idea of community mental health systems was to provide more support for seriously mentally ill individuals through case management, evaluation and stabilization centers, day treatment facilities and housing.

When Cunningham began his work with Aloha House in 1996, he and his team expanded mental health and substance use treatment services for those in need in Maui County, which was no easy feat, but “I believed in it,” he said.

Aloha House was in debt and on the verge of closing, recalled retired board member Jerry Welch, but “Jud encouraged us to stay the course and we buckled our seat belts and hung on while he started using his expertise.”

“It took awhile but gradually we got out of debt and started expanding our services to our community,” Welch said last week. “Jud put together an awesome management team and this attracted some other agencies to wish to merge with Aloha House and eventually we became MBHR.”

In 2001, Aloha House and Malama Family Recovery Center, a gender-specific substance use treatment program for women, merged through an “interlocking boards” agreement, meaning that the governance and management of both organizations would be under one organization, according to Maui Behavioral Health Resources.

In 2008, a similar agreement was reached between the boards of Aloha House and Malama Family Recovery Center, and Maui Youth & Family Services.

Through various contracts and funding sources at the county, state and federal levels, Aloha House has been able to continue to build community-based support, including services and shelter for those in crisis.

Ponichtera said the decision to join the three agencies was a “very wise decision” and a crucial move for Maui.

“I’m not sure that anyone would have done that. It was a very big decision, it was fiscally responsible and very ahead of his time,” she added. “Rather than competing, it was joining, it was unifying, and I think that created an example in the community that people might want to do themselves.”

Aloha House went from having fewer than 15 staff and only a handful of residential clients to having 200 staff and serving almost 8,000 clients per year under three partner agencies, according to the organization.

Over the years, Cunningham spotted gaps in behavioral health services and sought to fill them, such as rebuilding an outpatient treatment program for substance abuse, adding detox and drug court programs, offering treatment for inmates transitioning out of the Maui Community Correctional Center, creating substance abuse prevention education camps for youth, recruiting quality staff for the agency, collaborating for much-needed funding and more.

“There are countless success stories,” Cunningham said.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “we were determined to stay open” to ensure that mental, social and behavioral health needs were met, including the clean and sober housing options that have expanded throughout Central Maui.

“I have over the years walked around the various agencies and have been amazed at how he knew everybody’s names and often a lot about their families,” Welch said of Cunningham. “Though he will be staying with us on a consulting basis I will miss his regular presence around our campuses.”

His deep-rooted care for staff and the patients was evident on Wednesday as the CEO walked the halls of the dorms on the Aloha House campus, taking time to greet people and talk story.

The branch agency’s recent goal has been chipping away at the complex behavioral health issues within the homeless populations on Maui, Cunningham noted, which has already begun with the team’s Enhanced Coordinated Care outreach group, which helps individuals connect and stay engaged with treatment.

A permit is also pending to add another dormitory on the Aloha House campus for a residential treatment program to increase its bed count from 48 to up to 60, he said.

In the future, he hopes that the agency can garner funding for workforce development and certification needs for current and new staff, as well as to increase wages so that providers can stay on Maui — which is losing qualified medical personnel due to high costs of living.

“When the community understands the value of behavioral health care, a bigger investment will be made toward training, education and employee recruitment and retention costs,” he said.

Still, Cunningham has faith in the organization moving forward.

In retirement, he will be spending more time with his family as well as continuing some of his passions, like playing golf and basketball and staying involved in the community.

“I’m extremely optimistic about the future of this organization and the reason for that is because of the new leadership that’s coming into being,” Cunningham said. “We have this incredible team of people that we’ve been able to pull together, you know, to address the various aspects of operating an organization like this.”

Source : Maui News