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Amid ongoing recovery after wildfires, getting children back to school is a priority, principal says

Volunteers help with community donations Aug. 11, 2023, at King's Cathedral, a Christian church in Kahului on the Hawaiian island of Maui, as residents come together to help people affected by the Aug. 8-9 wildfires. (OSV News photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

By Jennifer Rector

HONOLULU (OSV News) — In the aftermath of the wildfires that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, one of Tonata Lolesio’s priorities as the principal of Sacred Hearts School there has been to get the children back in school.

“Parents are desperate to return their children to school. They learned from COVID that distance/virtual learning is impractical for their children. They are looking for a more stable learning environment,” Lolesio told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Honolulu’s diocesan newspaper.

She said getting the children back to school is the right next step after the trauma they experienced.

“It deeply saddens me; they are our hope for the future of our parish and Lahaina community. As educators, we are their advocate, their voice for the essential services they so desperately need, academic, spiritual, developmental, social and emotional,” Lolesio said.

Unfortunately, students cannot return to Sacred Hearts School, the parish school of Lahaina’s Maria Lanakila Church, which was miraculously left unscathed by the flames, but half of the school was burned down in the fire.

Lolesio said they have tried to go back several times to retrieve furniture, equipment and curriculum from the standing classrooms, but they were turned away by authorities.

“I never thought that in my lifetime, I would ever be denied access to the town I grew up in and worked in. My heart tells me it’s time to move on; place my hand on the plow and don’t look back; Jesus, I trust in you,” said Lolesio.

Educators such as the Hawaii Catholic Schools associate superintendent, Mandy Thronas-Brown, and others donated school supplies in person. Efforts like these give Lolesio hope to continue onward.

“I must admit that my strength comes from my faith and my faculty and staff. They are my support system; I could not do this work without them,” said Lolesio.

The school is looking for donations to pay for students’ tuition and operations. For more information, visit shsmaui.org.

Some teachers and staff from the school also became homeless. Lolesio said they were doing everything they could to find them shelter with the help of the Knights of Columbus and EPIC Ministry, a Catholic young adult ministry based in the Diocese of Honolulu.

“The parish set up a ‘hub,’ as everyone calls it, at the (Sacred Hearts) mission where people can come for supplies and services we can provide. I made myself available to families who wish to enroll their children in Sacred Hearts School,” she said.

Sacred Hearts Mission is Maria Lanakil’s mission in Kapalua, nine miles north.

Lolesio has been trying to communicate with parents via Facebook and has been hosting meetings to keep them updated and to learn about their situations.

On Aug. 14, she gave teachers “the task of contacting their families for a safety and welfare check,” she said. “I thank God and am happy to report that all students and families are safe and accounted for.”

Lolesio also was working to get classes up and running by Aug. 28, hopeful that a lease with Maui Land and Pineapple Company Inc. could be secured to reestablish Sacred Hearts School in Kapalua. Those families who have moved to South Maui were instructed to enroll at St. Anthony School in Wailuku.

The pastor of Maria Lanakila, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, a Missionaries of Faith priest, is staying with a parishioner, and two Missionaries of Faith sisters who are on staff are staying at another parish.

With many families displaced by the wildfires that devastated Lahaina on the island of Maui, property owners have willingly offered their homes.

“Condo owners and homeowners are generously sharing their space or if they’re not on the island they are outright giving them the space,” said Carmella Esser from Kapalua. She has been volunteering at Sacred Hearts Mission to help those who lost loved ones and their homes.

Maui Now, an online local news site, reported Aug. 29 that “crews in Hawaii have all but finished searching for victims” of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. “It is unclear how many people perished.”

As of Aug. 30, the death toll was at least 115. Forty-six of the deceased have been identified.
The FBI said Aug. 25 that within a day of Maui County releasing the names of 388 people who were unaccounted for, more than 100 of them or relatives of those on the list came forward to say they are OK. The Associated Press said the list of 388 was “a portion of a broader list of up to 1,100 people reported missing.”

About 11,000 others evacuated. U.S. census data from 2020 shows that Lahaina had a population of about 12,700 out of an overall population on Maui of about 165,000.

The Maui Fire Department reported about 2,170 acres of Lahaina were scorched in the fire and more than 2,000 structures burned down.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said more than 6,000 people are now being temporarily housed in hotels and Airbnb units. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has received an estimated 11,010 registrations for assistance. Some $14.6 million in federal housing and individual assistance has been provided to date.

Help from the neighboring islands continues to grow. Catholic Charities Hawaii, Knights of Columbus, EPIC Ministry and parishes are reaching out to their brothers and sisters in need.

“We could have waited to assess the situation and taken our time to work out a solid plan, but we knew we needed to act. Our brothers have been leveraging every asset they have available to ensure that our West Maui families are receiving everything they need,” says Joshua Kapika, director of evangelization and faith formation for the Knights of Columbus in Hawaii.

Holy Trinity Church in Honolulu was among the early major donors. Capuchin Franciscan Father Michel Dalton, gave a moving homily while holding up a garbage bag Aug. 13. He asked each parishioner to take a bag home and fill it up with food, clothing and anything that could support the cause.

The parish collected 200 bags of necessities and 50 boxes of hygiene goods. It was donated in time to be a part of the first shipment of supplies delivered by the Knights of Columbus. On its website the Knights Hawaii State Council, https://www.kofchawaii.org, has a link for donations to the fraternal order’s Maui relief efforts as well as links to donate to EPIC Ministry and to the Hawaii Catholic Community Foundation (HCCF) for their relief efforts.

The Diocese of Honolulu’s primary recipient of Maui relief donations is HCCF, a nonprofit corporation created to support parish and school communities. HCCF will process and distribute gifts in support of Maui wildfires relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts. To make a donation the foundation via its own website, go to https://tinyurl.com/MauiCatholic.

Catholic Charities Hawaii is collecting donations at catholiccharitieshawaii.org. The agency also will be working to help rebuild homes, find temporary housing and provide essential needs and counseling.

“We are also working with our diocesan partners in Hawaii and Catholic Charities USA’s national network of partners to secure funding, monetary donations and other resources to aid those impacted,” said Be-Jay Kodama, the agency’s vice president of philanthropy.

Catholic Charities USA has made an appeal on its website: https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org. In addition, a number of U.S. Catholic dioceses have held special collections during weekend Masses to aid the victims of the Maui wildfires. The Archdiocese of Las Vegas launched a dedicated donation page Aug. 21 to support Maui relief efforts: https://dioceseoflasvegas.org/maui.

Jennifer Rector is a reporter at the Hawaii Catholic Herald, news outlet of the Diocese of Honolulu.

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