Displaced Maui residents find uplifting holiday ‘kokua’ after wildfires


(MAUI) — For some Maui wildfire victims, the holiday season has been rough, with many residents still displaced from their homes.

But the community has found a way to band together and deliver some kokua, the Hawaiian word for help, in various ways. They’re also receiving kokua from all over the world.

Sarah Verrastro, who has been living in a hotel with her 6-year-old son Myles after the devastating wildfires destroyed their Lahaina home and school, says she and her family have been struggling to get into the holiday spirit.

“Santa is really magical and smart, and he’s going to know exactly where you are on Christmas. You don’t have to worry about that,” she recalls telling her son.

Still, Verrastro told ABC News Live that she is mindful of the gifts she has received from helping hands, whether it be donated clothes or financial help from multimillion-dollar charity funds like The People’s Fund, started by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“They’re giving $1,200 a month, and no, that doesn’t cover anybody’s rental payment by any extent. For us, that’s our rebuild,” she said.

There have also been direct payments from nonprofit organizations including the United Way and Maui Economic Opportunity, funded in part by Hawai’i Community Foundation which is the largest private recipient of donations, according to Micah Kane, CEO and President of Hawai’i Community Foundation. Philanthropist Mackenzie Scott donated $5 million this week and the Hawai’i Community Foundation says they have raised $163 million as of Dec. 1.

Kane said that the foundation has used $35 million of the funds raised this year toward funding grants for providing direct financial assistance, shelter, grief counseling, and more.

They intend to disburse funds in phases.

“We know that federal funding and state funding will start to dry up,” Kane said.

The remaining $125 million will be used over the next few years in a recovery and stabilization mode.

“We want to stabilize people’s lives in a way where they can thrive for the next two to three, maybe even four years as their community gets re-envisioned,” Kane said.

But some displaced residents, like Nicole Ellison and her mother Monica, have had a tough time getting assistance.

The mother and daughter say they were in transitional housing waiting to move into a new rental when the fires hit and destroyed the shelter. They say they have moved seven times since then, and since their address doesn’t match their government IDs, they say they have run into bureaucratic red tape in trying to get assistance

“Me and my family have moved seven times…in the past three and a half months,” Nicole Ellison told ABC News Live.

Nicole Ellison and her mom told ABC News Live their finances are now tight.

“I wish we could postpone Christmas just for a little while. It just makes me sad,” Monica Ellison said with tears.

Things began to turn around after the nonprofit Project Vision Hawaii was able to help the Ellisons with financial aid for a one-year lease on a home.

“So they will be paying for our rent from six months to a year,” Nicole Ellison said.

Holiday kokua has come in other forms.

Linda Higgins, an ICU nurse from San Jose, California, said she wanted to help out Maui residents after seeing the devastation, and as a self-described “Christmas nut,” she told ABC News Live that she had a fun idea.

“I just realized they lost all their stockings and they needed something to bring a smile,” Higgins said of the younger displaced residents.

She got to work sewing and stuffing, rallying friends and neighbors to help so that every child in Lahaina would have a Christmas stocking.

More than 900 stockings have been transported to the island with the help of Southwest Airlines, and have been distributed to students at Sacred Hearts School, which was destroyed in the Lahaina fire. Stockings will also be distributed to Lahaina public school students.

And as this island tries to heal emotionally, another source of help comes from something from the heart of Hawaiian culture: music.

Friends Ikaiaka Blackburn, a Maui Fire County Department captain, and Marvin Tevaga, a Maui Police Officer and father of five who lost his home in the fires, took part in a special musical performance for ABC News Live.

Blackburn says he texted Tevaga after the fire to say “Sorry.”

“He’s my brother,” Blackburn said.

Tevaga said the Puamana songs, traditional Maui hula songs, are the ones that make him hopeful about the recovery.

“My grandma is buried there and I thought about the times when I was a kid — my grandma would take me down there and we would pick plumeria,” he said.

Blackburn said the community will continue to stand together as they navigate this tragedy

“Kokua means to support. Kokua means to back up, to take care of,” he said.

ABC News’ Emily Lippiello, Becky Worley, and Derick Yanehiro contributed to this report.

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