Unconventional approaches to addressing trauma offer pathways to recovery.

Ordinarily Spirit Horse Ranch uses equine treatment — calming and centering exercises with horses — to assist abused children and young adults recover from trauma and regain their agency.

But with the help of a $65,000 grant from Hawaii Community Foundation, the Kula ranch has shifted to counseling Maui residents affected by the August wildfires.

Itʻs one of several local efforts working to support the emotional well-being of survivors based around culturally diverse activities on the island.

Paige DePonte, who runs Spirit Horse Ranch and it’s parent group, Triple L Ranch, said a horse’s disposition is a model for how to avoid reliving traumatic events.

“Horses are always coherent,” DePonte said. “They’re not thinking about what happened yesterday, or what’s gonna happen tomorrow. They’re in the moment.”

Dakota, one of the therapy horses used at Spirit Horse Ranch in Kula. Attendees brush and walk the horse and take comfort from the calming pace of the animalʻs activities. (Allan Kew/Civil Beat/2023)

The exercises involve breathing techniques and repetitive activities like brushing, with the horse acting as a calming agent for the participants.

“We facilitate by asking questions and directing them to stay open to the outcome because it can go anywhere,” DePonte said. “And we try to take that first layer of what is bubbling at the surface, and it can be sadness, hopelessness, overwhelming loss –– but a lot of it right now is anger.”

The certified Trauma Informed Care Facility has recently invited families to sessions to focus on parents and caregivers, believing a child will reflect their parentsʻ emotional state.

DePonte said the program is typically eight sessions, but they will recommend an individual to a therapist if they don’t indicate any improvement. Equine therapy has shown some promise in studies conducted on veterans with PTSD; in one case showing 50% of respondents had significant and enduring reductions in symptoms.

Spirit Horse Ranch averages 300 visitors a year, according to DePonte, but in just the last two and a half months they’ve treated over 250 Maui residents affected by the fires, including first responders.

Maui county already had a 54% gap between the demand and supply for psychiatrists before the pandemic, according to a University of Hawaii study.

That couldn’t possibly account for the needs after the wildfire disaster.

“Like many parts of the country, there’s a behavior workforce shortage,” said John Oliver, the Maui County branch chief for the Hawaii State DOH Behavioral Health Administration.

Since the fires Oliver and others have mobilized to give emotional relief to victims scattered across the island.

Maui County was already underserved by counselors prior to the pandemic, and that gap has been exacerbated by the wildfire events. Community groups are finding ways to redirect their programs to address the needs of survivors. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Alongside bolstering their workforce and engaging with community partners, the Behavioral Health Administration offers Talk Story Musubi, an open-ended group discussion over musubi every Tuesday and Wednesday.

Grief comes in stages, according to Oliver, and can grow severe once someone’s primary needs are met. Most displaced residents have yet to find a permanent housing solution, so processing their trauma may still be ahead of them.

Mauiʻs divergent cultures will require different approaches to care, Oliver said. “If you’re blind to that, you’ll misunderstand the bulk of people from Lahaina.”

Other Maui organizations are also using less-conventional therapeutic means to nurture survivors.

Returning To Aina To Heal

Ka’ehu is a nonprofit conservation group that ties land stewardship with Native Hawaiian cultural practices. Since 2014 they have restored a 64-acre stretch of the Ka’ehu Bay shoreline, uncovering fish ponds and replanting indigenous plants in the process.

Their volunteers are often at-risk youth, people with addiction issues and struggling families who participate in activities to rebuild bonds with each other and the land. That includes hoʻoponono, lomi lomi, basket and bracelet weaving, and the group occasionally incorporates grief counselors and cultural practitioners into their programing.

Lohelani Furtado-Gaspar, a former student at and now employee for Kaehu, leads a group of local teachers around an excavated fish pond discovered at the 64-acre property in Wailuku. (Allan Kew/Civil Beat/2023)

“The Native Hawaiian community in general understands that being connected to the ocean and aina is healing within itself,” said Ku’ulei Maunupau, the nonprofit’s interim executive director.

Now they are shifting their mission toward displaced families who relocated to the windward side after the fires.

Over the next year they plan to engage with over 200 families in their Sacred Spaces for Disaster Recovery Program, supported with a $150,000 grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation. Alongside funding for activities, the money will cover all costs for former Lahaina residents.

“The hope is to increase cultural activities to increase health and well-being and to address the collective trauma. Because even though it is Lahaina families, we all have family and friends who lost everything. And it is has had a ripple effect on all Maui residents,” Maunupau said.

Programming is scheduled to start in mid-November.

While some organizations have devoted themselves to survivors, the Doorway Into Light funeral parlor has raised over $40,000 to pay the funeral costs of fire victims.

A sitting area at Doorway into Light funeral parlor in Haiku, surrounded by a variety of different urns — some even comical — that challenges how death is often viewed. (Allan Kew/Civil Beat/2023)

The Haiku nonprofit, run by interfaith minister Reverend Bodhi Be, provides end-of-life counseling and organizes green funerals — services that forgo embalming fluids and non-degradable caskets.

Normally, Be educates dying people and their caregivers how to navigate the end of life.

But that mission has taken on new dimensions after the fires. For some of those victims, according to Be, virtually no time has passed.

“Two months ago is yesterday,” he said.

So far the 13 families they’ve supported have been in need of financial support for funeralizing their loved ones, particularly to cover the high costs of cremation.

What counseling they’ve received has been over the phone, punctuated by active listening.

It takes “a willingness to deeply listen and not think I have any idea what to say or what the medicine is here. Sometimes the medicine is that somebody just needs to rant and rave and push the anger away, the grieving may just be wanting a way to get out,” Be said.

FEMA has provided funding to support Hawaii Cares, a state telehealth program that offers crisis-counseling. They can be reached at 800-753-6879 or 808-832-3100 free of charge.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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