UPDATED: Tiare Lawrence, a Native Hawaiian organizer and activist from Maui, will help dole out the money along with other Lahaina residents.

On Aug. 9, as embers smoldered in the ruins of Lahaina, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, a professional fighter from Hawaii, took to Instagram with a plea for her followers.

Please send money to those who lost everything.

“I’ve been crying all morning watching the devastation of Maui island,” Macfarlane wrote. “Lives have been lost, homes and businesses destroyed in a matter of minutes.”

Although she wouldn’t know it then, the wildfire that swept through Lahaina the day before would become one of the deadliest in U.S. history, claiming the lives of at least 115 people. The death toll is only expected to rise as hundreds remain missing or unaccounted for.

At least 115 people have died as a result of the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui. A memorial has been set up along the road near Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“Every person that has ever visited this island or benefited from it, PLEASE HELP,” Macfarlane urged. “You claim to love our islands so much, now we need all the kokua we can get.”

Macfarlane launched a fundraiser on the social media site through her nonprofit, Nā Wahine Toa Foundation.

Within days she had raised more than $1 million and that total has now climbed to more than $2.6 million, making it arguably the most successful grassroots fundraising campaign in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

Macfarlane, stunned by the support, said at the outset she would entrust the money to a single person — Tiare Lawrence, a Maui-based activist and organizer of Native Hawaiian descent whose family has deep roots in Lahaina.

She said the proceeds would go to support the “generational families of Lahaina” and that it would be up to Lawrence to “disperse as needed.”

What exactly will happen with that money, however, is still an open question.

Meta, the parent company of Instagram, has yet to release any of the funds, Lawrence told Civil Beat in an interview at her home in Makawao where she has taken in family members displaced by the fires and set up a donation center for survivors where they can collect food, clothing and toiletries.

When it does, she said, what to do with the money will be a collective decision by her and a handful of prominent Native Hawaiian activists, including Archie Kalepa and Keeaumoku Kapu, who along with Lawrence formed a new organization called Na Ohana o Lele Lahaina.

“Because I am from Lahaina this is really important to me,” Lawrence said. “You can trust that the money is going to go to our Lahaina people.”

Already, Lawrence said, she’s in discussion with a “large landowner” to purchase property near Lahaina for a columbarium and memorial park. She didn’t want to disclose details of who that landowner is because the negotiations are not complete.

Tiare Lawrence talks with Honolulu Civil Beat Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Makawao. Lawrence has been elevated to head up a local, grass-roots effort of financial and community support. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Tiare Lawrence, whose family is from Lahaina, has been working to help raise millions of dollars for survivors of the Maui fires. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Her hope, she said, is to have families of each of the fire victims plant an ulu, or breadfruit, tree at the site.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, after the story published, Lawrence and a representative for Macfarlane asked to clarify that the memorial park will be part of a separate fundraising effort.

Lawrence used to work as an organizer for the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action and has run two unsuccessful campaigns for the Legislature. She now works for Mahi Pono, a farming company involved in fights over access to East Maui water.

Lawrence has become a prominent — and at times polarizing — voice in the wake of the Maui disaster.

On Aug. 18, she and members of Na Ohana o Lele Lahaina held a press conference in which they called on Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to halt any idea of “fast-track development” and let the people of Lahaina grieve before moving on to discussions about rebuilding the community.

Lawrence said the reason for the press conference was to ensure that local residents affected by the fire, and particularly Native Hawaiians, have a voice in shaping Lahaina’s future.

“Our goal that day was to create our own table and have the government come to us and ask us what we want,” Lawrence said. “That wasn’t happening, but it will now. I think we made it very clear that we’re not backing down.”

Lawrence said she was surprised by the level of support that the online fundraiser received. As of Friday, nearly 85,000 people had donated to the campaign.

The post went viral on Instagram in part because it was being boosted by social media influencers and celebrities, including the actor Jason Momoa and Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, both of whom were born in Honolulu.

Another reason that it became so visible is Lawrence herself was posting images and video of what was happening in Lahaina in real time when officials and news media were still trying to wrap their arms around just how severe the flames had become.

“We were breaking news on the day of the fire even before any of the news stations,” Lawrence said.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane helped raise more than $2.6 million for survivors of the Maui fires through Instagram. (Screen shot)

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been raised to help victims of the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina and Upcountry Maui.

Well-known figures, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, have donated tens of millions of dollars themselves to help the community recover while nonprofits, such as the Hawaii Community Foundation, have reported raising millions more.

Hundreds of people have launched their own campaigns through social media and other websites, including GoFundMe, to help victims of the wildfires. According to data provided by GoFundMe, more than 330,000 people from around the world have donated more than $50 million through its website to help victims of the Maui disaster.

With so much money flying around, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office has issued warnings about the potential for fraud and has encouraged people to donate to well-known charities that are registered with the state or federal government.

Hugh Jones, a former deputy attorney general who led the tax and charities division, said such notices are necessary because “there’s always going to be people who want to take advantage of people’s human spirit.”

The proliferation of direct donations either online or through social media presents its own challenges.
In those cases it can be harder to follow the money, he said, because oftentimes those individuals, unlike registered charities, do not have to file publicly available tax records.

“If you’re giving money to someone on a street corner or through a GoFundMe we really don’t know how those people are spending the money,” Jones said. “You’re relying on their good faith to ensure that they’re actually spending the money as they say they will.”

Lawrence said she also is concerned about scams.

In addition to working with Macfarlane on the Maui fire fundraiser, she and others have set up a separate Instagram account that aims to send money directly to survivors through Venmo.

The account posts images of families that escaped the fires and provides a brief description of who they are along with a QR code to a Venmo account that sends money directly to them.

Combined with the other fundraiser, Lawrence estimates she’s helped raise nearly $4 million.

To make sure no one is taking advantage of the situation, Lawrence and a team of Lahaina residents — including two of her cousins who lost their homes in the fires — only approve posts on the Venmo page that have been vetted. Lahaina is a small town, she said, and all it takes is a few phone calls to ensure that someone is legit.

“We’re from Lahaina so we already know a lot of the people,” she said.

Tiare Lawrence has opened up her Upcountry home to family and friends who wake up Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Makawao. Lawrence has been elevated to head up a local, grass-roots effort of financial and community support. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Tiare Lawrence, who’s opened up her Upcountry Maui home to those who lost their houses in the Lahaina fires, has a team of volunteers to help vet families for donations. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For Shannon Ii, the Lahaina Ohana Venmo page has been a lifeline. Ii worked as a custodian at King Kamehameha III Elementary School which burned down in the fires. She also lost her home, which was only built a few years ago through Habitat for Humanity.

She said she received a one-time $700 cash payment from the federal government, but that money was gone after a single trip to the grocery store for her and her family. The funds she received through Venmo has helped fill the gap.

“That money helped me put gas in my car,” Ii said. “That page was such a good idea. I felt like I was loved and held in the arms of somebody who actually cared about us.”

Still, Ii says it has been hard to accept the money as it comes in. On occasion, she gets an alert on her phone that a friend or family member is donating to her, but mostly she said the donations have come from strangers.

Ii is Native Hawaiian and said that many people in the Lahaina community are hard-working and used to being generous to others, but not necessarily to themselves.

“It can be kind of uncomfortable receiving so much help from our community and from other people,” Ii said. “People are sharing this aloha because they love the people of Lahaina and they love this place of Lahaina. The word aloha is reciprocity so if you’re going to give aloha you have to be ready to receive that as well.”

The money Lawrence has raised for the community has been impressive, Ii said, but she worries about what will happen with the funds that people donated through Macfarlane’s nonprofit on Instagram.

She said putting one person in charge of what will happen with those dollars is concerning and she hopes that the community will have a larger voice in determining how that money will be spent.

“There needs to be more people involved,” Ii said. “There needs to be not just one person or three or five, but it needs to be a community that decides.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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