Building The Arch
Early on Thanksgiving morning, Nathaniel Lam and Nancy Nguyen were awoken by a phone call from a friend. Wake up, their friend said, I’m here.
Groggy, Lam made his way downstairs — and was greeted by not just their friend, but by another 20 people, too, some of whom they didn’t even know.
The turnout was all in the name of the Thanksgiving out-reach they were putting on — they had spent the previous night making sandwiches to pass out to houseless individuals all over the island — and the people who showed up at their house that morning weren’t even close to half: By the end of the day, they reached about 120 volunteers who helped pass out a total of 1,100 meals from Waimanalo to Waialua.
With volunteer numbers like that, it might seem like they were running a long-established organization. But this marked their first Thanksgiving outreach — the latest endeavor of a grassroots service group dubbed The Arch Project that Lam and Nguyen had launched over the summer. Both avid rock climbers and active community volunteers, the couple combined those seemingly disparate interests in The Arch Project, as a way, they explain, to connect other climbers with a range of community service efforts.
It was at that moment, standing still half-asleep in his doorway with 20 people waiting in his garage, that Lam realized that they might be onto something.
“People are really wanting to do this,” Lam recalls thinking in that moment. “What they want to do for the community is so powerful that they are here before I am even awake. I was so impressed by other people’s passionate drive for it that I was like, I know this is what we are supposed to be doing. There is no question about it.”
After gaining considerable momentum via word of mouth in the climbing community, The Arch Project, named after a popular climbing spot, now has become a full-fledged nonprofit that’s extending its reach beyond rock climbers.
“It has definitely gotten a lot of traction very quickly,” Nguyen says. “It has grown a lot faster than we were anticipating.”
The idea to create The Arch Project began simply as an off-the-cuff conversation when Lam and Nguyen first met. Lam, a veterinary surgeon and Nguyen, a hair stylist, bonded over their shared interests: rock climbing and community service. Lam told Nguyen how he had been running a Thanksgiving outreach on his own for the last couple of years, and Nguyen told him how she was known as “the musubi lady” in Kakaako, where she often passes out her homemade musubis to homeless communities there.
And all of a sudden, the conversation moved into them launching their own service group.
Both are active climbers — they’ve even constructed a climbing wall in their garage — and it seemed natural to reach out to their climbing friends first.
Plus, it was a way to connect with other rock climbers. Nguyen, who started climbing 10 years ago, recalls the local rock climbing scene as a fairly small one where everybody knew everybody, until a few years ago. With the advent of various climbing gyms, that has largely changed.
“It was an opportunity to give everybody a chance to come together and meet one another,” Nguyen explains.
And, they reasoned, many climbers they know often spend all their free time venturing out to climbing spots — why not guide them to redirect a little of that time?
“We wanted to do something as a climbing community, because climbing itself tends to be a very individualistic sport — so much of it surrounds the idea of personal achievement,” Lam says. “We wanted to try to bring climbers together to do something that was bigger than themselves.”
One thing that they learned from their large Thanksgiving turnout, Lam says, is that “everybody wants to (help out).”
“But not everybody is organized or has the means to do it,” Lam says. “The Arch Project is a way for us to provide that … It’s an organization that connects people who want to make a difference with ways to make a difference.”
“We are here to be that platform to give those opportunities,” Nguyen adds.
While the group currently is comprised mainly of people they’ve met through the climbing community, they stress that it is open to everyone: “We want climbers to be involved with this, but we also want to be involved with other organizations and to be a resource for everyone in general, climbers or not,” Nguyen says.
The living room of Lam and Nguyen’s home looks like some sort of mad scientist lives there. The sliding glass door leading into the room is filled with notes and drawings — all brainstorming for future Arch Project initiatives.
“We toss around ideas on a daily basis,” Lam explains.
So far, The Arch Project’s outreach efforts have included a range of different activities — beginning, at first, with activities specifically related to rock climbing.
“A lot of the climbing areas in general are in remote parts, so those areas don’t get a lot of attention because there are not a lot of people going through there,” Lam says. “They are just abandoned spots with a lot of trash. But we go through there to climb.”
Their inaugural event was a cleanup at a climbing site on the North Shore, where you have to navigate through the remains of an abandoned homeless camp in order to get to it, followed by another cleanup at a climbing site at Waimea Bay. And in the months since, The Arch Project has extended its reach and moved into a wider range of activities — they’ve hosted a screening of a film dealing with environmental issues, conducted their Thanksgiving outreach, and, most recently, partnered with Project Hawaii Inc., a nonprofit that aims to improve the lives of homeless children, for their annual toy drive.
“The Arch Project decided to help contribute to their cause by partnering with them and fulfilling some of their children’s wish lists,” Lam says. “We acquired two lists of children that had requested needs for the upcoming school year and gifts, and we mobilized our members to make it happen.”
Lam and Nguyen admit that there have been times that they have wondered if The Arch Project is worth it, if it’s really something they should be spending their time and effort on. After all, they’ve funded much of it out of their own pockets, and balancing running a nonprofit with their full-time jobs has led to a lot of busy, sleepless nights.
“There were times when we were like, how much money have we spent on this already, is this really worth it?” Lam recalls.
But what has kept them going has been the fact that with each event they do, they’ve gotten growing support from volunteers. Things were slow going in the beginning — their first cleanup garnered only a handful of volunteers — but by the time the Thanksgiving outreach came along, they not only were into the hundreds, but they were getting all kinds of assistance from people.
“We posted what we had and what we needed on Facebook, and people were just making comment after comment, saying I am bringing this, I’ll bring that,” Lam recalls.
While the growth of The Arch Project has been organic so far, they are looking to formalize things in the next year — to have a more structured membership and a larger board. They also are looking to further grow the types of service they do — issues related to kids and animals top the list — and aim to build a wider network in order to serve as a springboard for others who might want to spearhead their own projects.
“Our long-term future goal is that we have an organization that not only has organizational stability and financial stability, but also to grow connections and network to be able to make some of these goals happen that other people have,” Lam says.
“We are all trying to do something in our own way, and collaborating is the best way to get it done.”
For more information, visit thearchprojecthawaii.com.