Help Heal Maui: Tzu Chi USA Launches Relief Following Devastating Fires

Written by: Adriana DiBenedetto

Maui landscape
An aerial view reveals the terrible devastation sustained in this disaster. Photo/Jaime Puerta

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White gloves protecting his hands, Joseph Texeira took an appreciative moment’s rest outside Tzu Chi’s emergency relief distribution on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

“I was home that day,” recalled Joseph, his wife, Brenda, close at his side. “In the beginning, I thought I was sitting home safe, then all of a sudden, I decided I’ve got to go.” Smoke had begun to thicken the air, and the smoke alarms inside his home activated. Peering outside revealed the grass had caught fire nearby. “I saw the fire in the building in front of our building was raging, and I thought, ‘Man, I got to get out of here.’”

Joseph had rushed to his car with precious little time to spare. It was not long, however, before he had to leave his vehicle behind, too, when road conditions necessitated evacuating on foot. “When I was running, my hands were burning, and I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m not going to make it.’ But I kept running and thinking of the kids and the family, and that I can live yet, if I run.” And live, he did.

Brenda Texeira had been on Oahu visiting her son, and became concerned when she didn’t receive Joseph’s daily phone call. Learning about the fire, she’d worried all night, but did her best to remain hopeful while waiting for news. Joseph’s phone had burned in the car, but luckily, he knew Brenda’s phone number by heart, and let her know that while he had sustained burns, he was safe, and staying at a shelter for the time.

The retired couple had lost much, but what they did still have was worth far more:

Our home is with us. When we’re together, we’re home.

Joseph Texeira’s story is one of many after wildfires erupted on Maui on August 8, 2023, the tragic cascade of events commencing with powerful winds and dry conditions that drove flames through communities, consuming hundreds of homes in mere moments.  

The most central wildfire on Maui devastated much of the community of Lahaina, where more than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed. Of the burned structures, 96% were residential, and the Lahaina Historic District suffered extensive fire damage. The Lahaina fire has now claimed over one 95 lives, and is currently on record as the fifth deadliest wildfire in United States history. 

Tzu Chi volunteers in Honolulu’s Chinatown launch an urgent street fundraising campaign to support Maui wildfire relief. Photo/Edgar Wu

Help Heal Maui Hand-in-Hand

As courageous first responders raced to contain the fires, volunteers of Tzu Chi USA’s Pacific Islands Region readied for disaster response to help those affected. Stateside, too, Tzu Chi was closely monitoring the situation as it unfolded, and mobilizing support.

People donating for Maui Fire relief
Mobilizing swiftly in the face of devastating wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Tzu Chi volunteers take to the streets to raise both awareness and funds. Photo/Edgar Wu

Nationwide, Tzu Chi volunteers soon launched a “Help Heal Maui” disaster relief fundraiser to aid survivors. And, thanks to an anonymous donor’s incredible generosity, Tzu Chi USA’s fundraising effort for Maui wildfire relief was able to match all contributions to Help Heal Maui” up to $1 million until September 30, 2023, effectively doubling the love and support people can give to this urgent cause.

On August 13, 2023, Tzu Chi volunteers initiated a street fundraiser in Honolulu’s Chinatown to call upon communities to support the “Help Heal Maui” aid mission. Just days later, on Wednesday, August 16, Tzu Chi volunteers from Hawaii traveled to Maui to learn about the current relief operations carried out by the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and began synchronizing efforts.  

People donating for Maui Fire Relief
Tzu Chi’s Maui wildfire relief fundraiser takes place across the nation. Pictured are Tzu Chi volunteers and community members in Flushing, New York. Photo/Hui Liu

Nearly 20 days after the fires’ onset, residents struggled to find solace. In the town of Lahaina, helping hands abound from across the community, all while processing their own grief. Local resident Laura Baxter, who flew back from vacation just after the fires began, shared her story with Tzu Chi volunteers:

We were vacationing in Oregon. I was with my daughter, and immediately, as soon as we could we kind of wrapped up the stuff that we were doing there and came over. And you know, from the minute we touched ground, traumatic pain filled the stories, and I mean, we really couldn’t stop crying.

Preparing for their first emergency relief distribution, where impacted households would receive cash cards, Renee Chao, Deputy Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Charity Development Department, made it clear that, “We visited the DRC [Disaster Recovery Center] because we want our volunteers to be on duty in the DRC every day. We are going to maximize our capacity to support the families impacted by these wildfires.” Tzu Chi’s emergency cash aid is delivered directly into the hands of individuals and families whom this ongoing catastrophe has impacted.

We’re here to help with a little bit of monetary donations, and helping them, but I think it goes beyond that. It really has to do with the community giving them hope, light at the end of the tunnel that we will rebuild Maui stronger.

These funds can be used for essentials such as food, clothing, gas, prescription medications, diapers, lodging, and more. Aside from monetary support, Tzu Chi also provides much-needed spiritual and emotional comfort to survivors, ensuring they know they’re not alone in this. 

It’s been an amazing operation. It hasn’t always been smooth, but the volunteers that keep showing up, I mean, are just pouring their hearts out, and it’s emotional.

Expressions of Aloha: A New Day Dawns

Tzu Chi volunteer handing bamboo bank and blanket to Maui Fire survivor
Matthew Isenberg, a Maui fire survivor and Tzu Chi care recipient, lost his entire community in a single day, yet expressed the desire to aid those impacted in turn. Photo/Ting Fan

On Saturday, August 26, 2023, Tzu Chi volunteers split into several groups: one, to help pack food and supplies at Lahaina’s largest distribution center, while a second team prepared the venue ahead of time for Tzu Chi’s emergency cash card distribution. This would be the first of several distributions, taking place over four consecutive Sundays. 

Both efforts are intended to help those who’ve lost their homes to the recent wildfires on Maui, where local volunteers, like Linda, explained that it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation: “Everybody’s coming up and doing what they can to help. It’s, to me, it’s like the beacon of hope. It’s like the light in the darkness of all this.”

Maui fire survivor Joseph Texeira, his family and Tzu Chi volunteer
Maui fire survivor Joseph Texeira (seated, center) sustained burns to his hands as he escaped the flames, treading water up to his neck for hours when continuing by car was no longer safe. Seated (right) is his wife, Brenda. Photo/Ting Fan
5 Tzu Chi volunteers group photo
Louisa Collier, the coordinator for Tzu Chi’s first Maui wildfire relief distribution on August 27, 2023, is joined by her whole family to aid in the relief efforts. Pictured are Laura (top right), her husband (top left), their two children (bottom left and right), and her sister (bottom center). Photo/Ting Fan

Renee Chao also shared that this is just the beginning for Tzu Chi’s relief in Hawaii: “Joining the community is a good starting [point] to do long-term recovery, because that’s real. When we say we are here, we are really here.”

Maui Fire survivor family and Tzu Chi volunteer
Tzu Chi events abound with moments of deep connections, the caring atmosphere volunteers create lifting spirits. Photo/Tzu Chi Pacific Islands Region

As residents continue to come together in the face of this monumental recovery effort, Tzu Chi USA’s Pacific Islands Region hosted its first emergency cash card distribution on August 27, benefiting 281 affected households. The relief event took place in Lahaina, the effort uniting nearly 50 Tzu Chi volunteers from across the nation, and especially from across the Hawaiian Islands.   

Just one week later, at Tzu Chi’s wildfire relief distribution hosted over Labor Day weekend, Tzu Chi’s relief reached 302 affected households. Here, care recipients and volunteers alike reflected on the recent wildfires. 

Tzu Chi bamboo banks
Tzu Chi’s relief began decades ago when one resolute Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, inspired her dharma family to save coins daily in a bamboo bank. Tzu Chi still uses this symbol of love and perseverance to this day, collecting charitable donations on behalf of those in need. Photo/Jason Yeh

A local named Rowena Baraoidan reminisced about her family home at the September 3 event. With her grandchildren close by her side, she looked back on a lifetime of fond memories, recalling, “Our son was two years old when we moved in, so we’ve been in the house for 30-plus years.” Her story is one of many on Maui in the days after this catastrophe. “We’re probably in the same boat as everybody else,” Rowena shared, “needing help during this difficult time.”

Having never been in such a tough position, and recognizing the challenging road ahead, she expressed, “All the help you can get, we will receive gladly and with open arms.”

And indeed, further disaster relief was already on its way, with another distribution on September 10 that aided 521 households, a distribution on September 17, and Tzu Chi’s aid in Maui still ongoing. 

You know, it’s a community. It takes a village. It takes everybody, you know, to show love and aloha. That’s what we’re all about, right?

This heartbreaking tragedy has shattered lives and cherished homes, destroyed historic Lahaina Town landmarks, and left thousands without power. By joining forces with Tzu Chi, you can help offer urgent support to the people of Maui.

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