Calvary Chapel of Central Maui flew in nearly $1 million in donations from Las Vegas on a casino airplane.

An army of churchgoers swarmed the hot and sticky tarmac earlier this week at Kuhului Airport to unpack a 747 jumbo jet.


The largesse flown in from Las Vegas amounted to almost $1 million in donated goods for Maui fire victims. 

For four hours members of a Christian fellowship from Central Maui wrestled air purifiers and teddy bears onto 40-foot-long semitrailers. They deposited the haul in a large white warehouse behind the old Puunene sugar mill.

A network of military veterans who served together in Afghanistan had amassed the aid in the desert city often referred to as Hawaii’s ninth island. Day-use of the private jet was the gift of a casino company. The goods themselves, ranging from electric bikes to diapers, were contributed by dozens of businesses and philanthropic groups from across the nation.

Churchgoers loaded a semitrailer Sept. 19 with donations for Lahaina and Upcountry fire victims. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It was the largest haul yet for Calvary Chapel of Central Maui, which, like many island nonprofits, morphed into a volunteer aid distribution arm on the heels of the Aug. 8 fires that displaced thousands of Lahaina and Kula residents.

Pastor Sean Housman established the Puunene warehouse as a donations center three days after the fires.

For years the building, set near empty fields once pillared by thick sugarcane stalks, has been undergoing renovations. County permitting requirements, most recently an archeological survey, have delayed the fellowship’s plans to morph a derelict industrial storage facility into a new house of worship.

The delay had upset the pastor. But now he considers it part of God’s plan.

“I see the wisdom in all of the waiting because now we have a place to house all of the containers full of donations that we have coming in,” said Housman, a gregarious man with a brown, bushy beard.

A line of trucks loaded with donated aid — children’s toys, home goods, electric bikes, air purifiers and premium snack foods. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Most days, two or three dozen volunteers from the 300-member church pitch in to assemble customized aid packages for people who’ve lost their home or job, as well as residents who’ve taken in families displaced by the fires. Over six weeks, the church has delivered supplies to more than 5,000 people, Housman said.

Matching people to the things they need to move beyond the disaster is only part of the church’s mission. Another focus is building neighborly connections between people who’ve lost so much and those who wish to help them recover, now and in the uncertain weeks and months ahead. 

For Housman, a nagging concern is that Maui’s finite housing stock and cost of living crisis, problems that preceded the fires, could force displaced families to move off the island. He prays his church’s outreach gives weary families without stable roofs overhead one more small reason to stay and rebuild.

“The long game is we want to instill enough hope in them where they feel like there’s still a future for them in Maui,” Housman said. “If they stay, then their voice can be heard at a county council meeting. Otherwise, if they leave, then the only voices that remain are special interest voices. And so for the future of Maui, these guys, they can’t lose hope.”

Instead of rolling up the warehouse doors for a series of unwieldy, free-for-all distribution events, the church’s approach to aid distribution is highly tailored. People seeking aid are directed to fill out an online order request form where they can detail their specific needs days before they arrive at the warehouse to retrieve their made-to-order aid bundles.

Volunteers from Calvary Chapel of Central Maui unloaded a 747 jumbo jet of nearly $1 million in donated aid and delivered it to a warehouse where the church has established a supplies distribution hub for Lahaina and Upctountry fire victims. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Each order is hand-delivered with the offer of a prayer.

The relief order request form asks about the number and ages of people in a household. Other questions aim to reveal whether a family is on the hunt for pots and pans, a garden hose or a broom — promising signs that they’re trying to furnish a newly leased apartment. When families instead say they’re looking for inflatable mattresses or a camp stove and propane, Housman said it’s a good indication that they’re preparing for homelessness.

This distinction is important. It helps volunteers discern what additional supplies a particular family might find useful. And it can help them connect fire victims with other relevant resources, such as housing or unemployment services.

For Housman, it’s also a way to measure the government’s efforts to move people out of cramped hotel rooms and into mid- and long-term housing. Regaining a secure home is top-of-mind for nearly everyone cycling through the aid hub, but many say the goal seems out of reach.

Volunteers from Calvary Chapel of Central Maui — including Pastor Sean Housman in the black cap —repackage aid before loading it onto 40-foot-long semitrailers and flatbed trucks. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“There’s a family that came yesterday and they’ve just got out of their $1,800 a month mortgage that they’ve been paying for who knows how long until the fire hit,” Housman said. “And now, just to get a roof over their head so they’re not stuck in instability in a hotel room, they’re paying $4,500 a month for rent in Kihei. But they’re just like, ‘What else can I do? I can’t let my family end up on the street.'”

A phone call from order form wranglers to aid recipients is key to the church’s aid packages. A volunteer might ask, “How did you escape the fire?” or, “What else did you lose that we might be able to help you replace?” 

A Sands Aviation Boeing 747SP sits on the apron at Kahului Airport after being unloaded following a flight from Las Vegas carrying 30 tons of aid supplies for the victims of the Lahaina and Upcountry fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The questions are meant to spark human connection.

In one recent exchange, Housman said a mother of six who lost her home in Lahaina discussed how she fled the burning town so fast she didn’t even bother to buckle her kids into car seats, piling them instead in the back of a truck. Recounting the escape triggered a sudden recognition: The fire had incinerated her van, along with six car seats.  

After the trauma of the last several weeks, the woman had forgotten about the burned car seats. But when she arrived at the church warehouse to collect her supplies, a volunteer handed her six new ones.

“Our process might go a little slower than just opening up the doors and letting everybody rummage,” Housman said. “But our goal is not just filling a hungry belly. It’s like we want you to feel so heard and so individually cared for and that you have a friend that will walk with you the whole way through.”

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

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