HAWAII NEWS | Sunday, November 3, 2019

Jewelry designer returns home to help her autistic brother thrive

By N.T. Arevalo

Tiff watching Chris make jewelry

Two special siblings and artists - Tiffany Chou, 33, and her brother Chris, 30 - were raised in Kula and now live in Waikapu with their mother. Chris, who was diagnosed with autism, will one day be under Tiffany's guardianship, and they've started to build what that might look like.

Every Friday at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, they join local artists at the Made in Maui showcase. In a corner by the lobby bar and registration desk, you'll find the Chou siblings at a table displaying origami earrings, necklaces and more. Chris, who taught himself origami from books, works on his next pieces. 

"My brother makes one-of-a-kind origami jewelry," Tiffany Chou says.

She reached out to locations across Maui to help sell Chris' designs but didn't hear back from any until the Fairmont Kea Lani offered space this summer.

A noted designer herself, Chou's jewelry has been featured in Cosmopolitan and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and worn by celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Olivia Munn and Maria Sharapova. Now, recently returned from New York, she is a mentor and caretaker to her brother during the week while he is at La'akea Village in Paia, a place where those with developmental disabilities can live and work with support.

"He can have off days during the week," his sister says, "but every Friday he pulls himself together, brings his A-game and is super focused for the entire day."

At times Chris walks away from their table and paces the lobby area, but he is quick to shake hands and introduce himself to curious customers. All earrings from Friday's sales go directly to his bank account. 

Tiffany adds, "Now, whenever we go out, he always says, 'My treat!"

Chris pats his sister on the back for her good work and shares his favorite stories with me. He's drawn mostly to imaginative tales and magic. "Every time I take magic classes, I like it." he says.

Sarah Menzies, executive director of La'akea Village, met Chris when he started their day program in 2016. She remembers Tiffany and a friend once dressing up as Snow White and Cinderella, two stories Chris loves. "They surprised Chris and took him out for the afternoon with his own cape in hand. His joy was larger than life. It brightened and enlivened everyone who was present that day."

Once a week the Chou siblings volunteer at the East Maui Animal Refuge's Boo Boo Zoo in Haiku, cleaning a record number of litter boxes. They've also launched a YouTube show, "Living with Autism in Hawai'i."

"I did some acting in New York and have always wanted to do something with my brother because there aren't a lot of people like Chris in the entertainment industry, no one for him to really relate to," says Tiffany. "His biggest insecurities are being an Asian minority and being labeled as disabled. This is why I started making little videos about us on YouTube, so that other people like us have people to relate to. He loves filming, and I think it really helps with his confidence and self-esteem."

While at the Kea Lani with the Chou's, Chris helps frame my shots before I take pictures of his designs.

"He is so attuned to the environment and emotions of others," says Menzies.

Back in New York, Tiffany was a volunteer paratriathlon guide at Achilles International, serving as a partner in races with athletes managing various disabilities. 

"If the athlete was blind, we would swim together with a waist or leg tether, ride a tandem bike and then run together using a hand-held tether," she explains.

Chris once joined her on a 3-mile Achilles relay race in Montauk, N.Y. She saw the difference it made and wants to see such opportunities for those in Hawaii.

A fellow volunteer guide once told her he used to run to chase his own goals, but now he runs to help others chase their goals and fulfill their dreams.

"That was really moving to hear and has always stuck with me," she adds. "I think it's really special that Chris and I share a common interest in jewelry. Kind of like my friend at Achilles, I used to make jewelry to chase my own goals, but now I help Chris with his jewelry to chase his goals and fulfill his dreams."