‘That’s the aloha spirit’: Maricopa answers call to service in Maui

Janelle Gomez's children pose with the 60 bags of donations in their garage on Aug. 14, 2023. The donations were shipped to Hawaiian families affected by wildfires in Maui. [Janelle Gomez]

In the wake of the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaiian history, some Maricopa residents are finding ways to help families in need after wildfires decimated the island of Maui and claimed more than 100 lives.

Dozens of Maricopa families responded to a call for service Monday and donated truckloads of needed goods — including clothes, shoes, diapers, blankets and tarps — and shipped them 2,800 miles southwest.

Janelle Gomez, who has family on Maui, helped organize the action.

“It’s hard to watch on the internet what’s going on with my family at home,” said Gomez, who is native Hawaiian. “I felt like the only thing I can do is publicize (the wildfires) to reassure people they’re not alone.”

Her Maricopa-based Polynesian cultural outfit, Learn With Aloha, requested donations of clean clothing and blankets on Saturday. Gomez hoped to receive at least a bag or two of clothes.

Instead, more than 60 massive bags overflowed into truck beds, minivans and cars to ship to Maui.

“I was amazed at how the community came together in such a short window of time,” Gomez said. “For me, my heart just felt so full … That’s just the aloha spirit.”

A generational tragedy

Brush fires in the evening hours of Aug. 8 in Maui quickly swelled under high winds and drought. Eight days later, the fires destroyed the historic city Lahaina and engulfed buildings in Kula.

As crews struggle to contain the fire, the death toll rises steadily. The Maui News confirmed at least 106 dead yesterday, marking the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Hawaiian officials anticipate finding the bodies of more victims as cadaver dogs search scorched land and buildings.

Reuters estimated at least 2,800 acres have burned and more than 2,200 buildings are damaged.

“It’s very tragic but particularly to Hawaii because it’s an island with limited resources,” Gomez said. “People have lost their homes, lost their businesses, possibly lost a family member. It’s beyond tragic for the locals and for Lahaina in particular.”

How to help from Maricopa

For Maricopa resident Janelle Gomez, the sorrow mirrors the loss of a family member. [Brian Petersheim]
For Maricopa resident Janelle Gomez, the sorrow mirrors the loss of a family member.
[Brian Petersheim]
While the local group ended its brief call for donations, Gomez said plenty of organizations still need help assisting families displaced and devastated by the fires.

These include the American Red Cross of Hawaii, the Maui Food Bank and the Hawaii Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund.

“A huge ‘mahalo’ — thank you — to everyone who has donated or praying for Maui,” Gomez said. “We’re grateful for any support.”