PAHOA, Hawaii Island – Eruption evacuees now in their second month living at a temporary shelter say they’ve established a community where displaced residents are helping one another with physical, emotional and security needs.

“It’s been good. We’ve got each other’s back,” Dennis Gillespie said Saturday while visiting with two of his new neighbors. “We’re a community, and we’re helping each other.”

Gillespie, who was helping secure wooden pallets needed to elevate fellow campers off of rain-soaked ground, said he had a “moment” of depression earlier in the day, but now was focusing on an upcoming lunch with a woman he met at the shelter.

Eruption evacuee Dennis Gillespie said he finds comfort and companionship with other displaced Puna residents at the Pahoa shelter. “We’ve got each other’s back,” he said. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“I’m gonna go scrub my ass up clean. I feel good,” he said.

Gillespie is among more than 200 evacuees staying at Hawaii County’s sprawling Pahoa Regional Recreational Facility, which includes a community center and gymnasium offering indoor shelter from seemingly daily showers.

People with pets and those desiring additional privacy have erected tents on the park’s athletic fields and along grassy boarders of parking lots. Still others sleep in their vehicles.

All have had their lives changed forever following the first releases of deadly gas and molten rock May 3.

For Dora Wheatley, that change has involved losing more than the Leilani Estates dwelling that’s been home for the past 16 years.

“I’ve been in my house for three years and never came out,” Wheatley said. The loss of both parents had triggered crippling depression that left her unable to go to the mailbox,  she said.

When the eruption started without warning a half-block away from her sanctuary, Wheatley said she had about 15 minutes to evacuate.

“Now I’m just getting back to the person I was four years ago,” Wheatley said Saturday.

Joined by husband, Clyde, she now lives in a tent, embraces strangers who ask to chat and is planning to fly on an airplane.

Saying good-bye forever to their Leilani Estates home of 16 years was tough for Dora and Clyde Wheatley, who plan to join family in Arizona at month’s end. Donated tents, tarps and other camping gear have improved their month-long stay at the Pahoa shelter. 

Those changes occurred because of the eruption, Clyde Wheatley said.

“So a bad thing turned out to be a good thing for her,” he said as the couple sat inside new tents, their emotions ranging from laughter to tears as a driving rain blew in an occasional mist.

Among the first three families to arrive at the shelter, they got “soaked every night” until generous donors like Pacific Baptist Church in nearby Keaau provided tarps, canopy tents and other camping gear, Dora Wheatley said.

They’re aware of thefts at the shelter, so their tent is never left unoccupied, she said.

“There’s a lot of people that you can tell are on drugs,” she said.

But many others have been very helpful, like the social service providers who keep evacuees informed of the resources available to them and Hawaii County employees working hard to clean the park, she said.

“They make the day go by a little bit better – just to have somebody come over and laugh with us,” Dora Wheatley said.

“This is a community within a community right here,” Clyde Wheatley added.

They and several family members have received free one-way tickets to Arizona, where the couple will begin new lives they hope will involve a cross-country trip in a motor home, he said.

“Now it’s time to move on, get a fresh start,” Clyde Wheatley said, noting he’s anxious to return to sleeping in a bed.

“We have to realize that we’re all kind of a family.” — Shannon Malina, shelter resident.

Conditions at the shelter appeared organized and orderly on Saturday. The men’s bathrooms were clean with full containers of hand soap on each sink.

Several evacuees were smoking cigarettes despite rules prohibiting that, while an odor of marijuana occasionally drifted through parts of the encampment. One man emerged from his tent to offer a passing reporter an extra shirt that was much too big for both of them.

Advancing lava flows from Kilauea volcano have left evacuees trying to stay dry while camping at the Pahoa shelter. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“We’re all starting to come together,” said Shannon Malina, who’s been at the shelter since the eruption’s opening day. “We have to realize that we’re all kind of a family. We’re on the same ship.”

But the growing family of evacuees, like many families, has a few dysfunctional members.

“I’ve actually had everything stolen up here,” Malina said. The matter has been “taken care of” with the donation of a new tent and other items, she said.

Malina, who said she’s been working the past two years as a “woofer” on a farm in exchange for room and board, said she feels safe “because I’m my own safe zone.”

“I think it really brings out the best and worst of people,” Malina added of her extended experience living at the shelter.

The eruption has brought at least one person to the shelter voluntarily.

“I literally moved out of Kona,” Irvin Russell Pelton Jr., who describes himself as “one of the greatest barbers in the universe,” said of his leeward home located on the other side of the island from the eruption.

Irvin Russell Pelton Jr. closed his Kailua-Kona barber shop so he can give free haircuts to eruption evacuees “for the duration.” Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Noting he’s done free haircuts and other volunteer work in every state but Alaska, Pelton said he wanted to help evacuees by donating his services for four days.

After providing 70 haircuts, Pelton said he realized there’s an ongoing need for his service, which also includes listening to evacuees’ heartbreaking stories and offering them comfort.

“I gave up my business to be here for the duration,” he said from his tent/barbershop located in the upper corner of the park.

Pelton said he’s working to recruit additional volunteer barbers whose help will give him time to visit the other emergency shelter in Keaau to assist immobile evacuees needing a comforting trim.

“This is where the creator led me,” he said.

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