HILO — The 14 Hilo residents and one dog waiting in the lower parking lot at Ben Franklin Crafts on Kilauea Avenue could have spent their sunlit Sunday morning doing any number of things.

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But they stood their ground, waiting for the woman who invited them and rebuffing nature’s efforts to lure them away.

Lei Robinson arrived shortly after 9:30 a.m., walking into the parking lot after nearly an hour of picking up litter on her own in another downtown location.

Every Sunday since August 2020, Robinson has called on anyone willing to help her clean up litter and graffiti throughout downtown Hilo.

It started with about 16 people, including some downtown business owners, who came together for a one-time service project. Since then, she and volunteers have removed many pounds of opala from downtown, including everything from common litter such as used food wrappers to other more nefarious items such as drug paraphernalia, used needles and even drugs themselves.

“At the beginning, I feel like it was, like, 100 pounds, 60 pounds, 70 pounds,” Robinson said. “It was that much trash.”

More than 60 people in total — some who participate every week — have come out to help with Robinson’s beautification efforts during the past year. Averaging at least five people each week, with some groups as large as 15 or more, the crew picks up litter and covers graffiti in a three-mile stretch from the soccer fields just off Kilauea Avenue to the Hilo Armory on the other side of Waianuenue Avenue.

Lei Robinson and her crew of volunteers clean up litter and debris in downtown Hilo on most Sundays. Nathan Christophel/2021

One morning in June, in about 45 minutes, the group picked up about 10 large trash bags of 40 to 45 gallons each full of rubbish, including trash in the canal that would have eventually wound up in the ocean had they not diverted it.

The group’s efforts are getting noticed.

“It’s way cleaner now than before,” Robinson said. “People say they see the difference.”

A Cadre Of Volunteers

Katie Hughley, one of the volunteers who came out for the June 13 cleanup, has lived in Hilo for 14 years. That Sunday was the first time she participated in Robinson’s community service campaign. She is one of the people who has seen the difference.

“I notice the trash all the time,” Hughley said. “I’m always like, just take a moment and get out there and clean it up.”

Inspired by Robinson’s work, she decided to put those words into action by participating.

“I think it’s awesome that she took the initiative, and I think everybody appreciates what she’s been doing,” Hughley said. “That’s part of why we show up.”

Robinson and her volunteers rotate through different downtown locations each month, focusing their efforts in specific areas around places such as the Palace Theater and Kalakaua Park. By the end of the month, the crew has cleaned up the entire 3-mile area.

And it seems there’s nothing that will keep Robinson from her work. She hasn’t missed a week since starting.

“Every single Sunday. Every single Sunday,” Robinson said. “Even if I wasn’t feeling good, I came because I know people are going to feel good when we finish cleaning up. That’s why I come. That’s why we all come.”

That week in June was a tough one for Robinson. Her boyfriend, Kevin, had recently died, and she was still mourning, planning an event in his remembrance. But not even that stopped her from bringing the cleanup crew together and leading the way.

Robinson is a fixture in downtown Hilo. She is a Hilo native, works at Puka Puka Kitchen and is a former employee of Hilo Town Tavern. The 54-year-old has been in Hilo for all but three years of her life when she traveled to the mainland, Saipan, Micronesia and other places outside Hawaii.

“If I had a million dollars, boy oh boy, this place would be different.” — Lei Robinson

She’s invested in her hometown. Not only does she organize the weekly cleanup events, she also feeds a growing downtown population of homeless people each day. Kevin was homeless when they started dating, and they began delivering food to the homeless about two and a half years ago.

She has an ear to the street because of her job and charitable work.

“Every day, I know what’s happening out there,” Robinson said.

Civic Leaders Take Note

Public officials and leadership of the Downtown Improvement Association are taking note of the efforts of Robinson and her crew.

Aaron Chung, the Hawaii County Council member who represents the downtown Hilo area, said he learned about the weekly cleanups when Robinson brought the work to his attention while he was buying bento lunches at Puka Puka.

“Litter and graffiti exist as problems in downtown, but those problems are not unique to our town,” Chung said.

A county ordinance puts the responsibility on property owners to keep the areas abutting sidewalks near their property free of debris, such as litter, at their own expense. The county takes care of cleaning streets throughout Hilo and aids the DIA with removing rubbish from the bins in the area.

DIA president Sharla Sare said the responsibility of keeping downtown clean and visibly welcoming falls on the entire community. The DIA board meets often with the mayor and state legislators to discuss its agenda for bettering downtown Hilo.

She welcomes the help from Robinson and her cleanup crew and encourages them to keep business and property owners informed about their efforts as much as possible.

“Aunty Lei and her group have a passion and do a lot of positive for the downtown area,” Sare said.

Chung called the weekly cleanups and the volunteers behind them terrific.

“Community involvement, participation and organization in making our town a better and nicer place to live is always a good thing,” the councilman said. “It’s unfortunate that they have to pick up after others, but that’s life, I guess. My hat’s off to all of them.”

Any help would be appreciated.

As it stands, all of the materials Robinson and the crew use each week, including trash bags, gloves, masks, pickers and spray paint, are paid for out of their own pockets.

“This is expensive,” Robinson said. “Every little bit counts.”

But that’s not keeping her or her fellow cleanup crew members from their work.

“Aunty Lei and her group have a passion and do a lot of positive for the downtown area.” — Sharla Sare, Downtown Improvement Association

“Everybody that comes to this gathering is like a fellowship for me because our friendships grow, and we all have the same thing in our head,” Robinson said, adding that the people who help clean up are there because they want Hilo to be better.

“It’s like my medicine,” said Jason Fujioka, who started helping with the weekly cleanups in May and has lived in Hilo for three years. “It makes me feel good.”

“Really, what this is about for me is about caring, not people giving up. And I’m here because that woman gets that,” said Eric Wolf, who Robinson said is now her chief assistant for the cleanup events. “I’m really tired of people being like, ‘Why do you care?’ I’m like, ‘You have an option.’”

He was looking for a way to get involved in the community after moving to Hilo in March and found Robinson’s call to action via the Hilo Happenings group on Facebook, which is where she posts news about the cleanup efforts each week.

Wolf added that Robinson was the primary reason he decided to join the crew.

“Aunty Lei is really sweet and somewhat holy,” he said during the June 13 cleanup.

With “a little money, a big heart and a lot of time,” Robinson is only just beginning.

“If I had a million dollars, boy oh boy, this place would be different,” she said.

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