About the Author

Tom Holowach

Tom Holowach was the manager of Paliku Theatre at Windward Community College in Kaneohe for 20 years. He has won multiple Pookela Awards for acting and produced a dozen Broadway musicals in Hawaii. A former broadcast newscaster and video producer, he is now a screenwriter specializing in true stories.

Most volunteers flew a long way to sleep on a cot and work 12-hour shifts to help survivors during the worst time of their lives.

Editor’s note: Tom Holowach of Oahu volunteered for the Red Cross for the first time following the Maui wildfires. This is the first of four Community Voices about his experience. The opinions expressed are not those of the American Red Cross or Civil Beat.

We have come to Maui from all over the United States, many with thick regional dialects just as foreign to kamaaina as our Pidgin will be to them.

The first Red Cross Disaster Response Operation volunteers are nearing the end of their three-week commitment. They were completely ready and able to grab their “go bags” and hop in a plane on a moment’s notice to travel to this disaster, and for most, it wasn’t a short flight either.

From places like Indianapolis and Charleston, Colorado and West Virginia, and many little towns they assure you that you’ve never heard of, they’re here in Hawaii for one reason: to do as much as they can in this moment to help fellow human beings having the worst time of their lives. This is DRO 428-24; that means that this year there have already been 427 previous disasters of some kind.

I’m laying crossways on an inflatable mattress in the South Maui Community Gym. This is Red Cross volunteer housing. The clients, who in this instance are being called “the survivors,” are now placed in the resort hotel rooms of Kaanapali and Wailea, Kahului and Kihei. The 150 volunteers living in this gymnasium placed them there — 7,000 of them. I’m one of the first of the “second wave” of volunteers to arrive.

Some 150 Red Cross volunteers sleeping in the South Maui Community Gym in August, with their own shelter supervisors watching over them, just like the volunteers did for the survivors. (Courtesy Tom Holowach)

I have never done anything like this before, because I was a full-time theater manager for 20 years, but now that I am retired, as soon as I heard the news about the Maui fires, I signed up on the Red Cross website. We did trainings at the Honolulu HQ on Saturday and Sunday.

In fact, over 11,000 people from around Hawaii volunteered. Three-thousand enlisted from Maui alone, so many that they told everyone else who had done their initial courses “Thanks, but we have enough Event-Based Volunteers already on Maui.”

Not giving up, I then asked what courses I needed to take to become a full-fledged volunteer. The Red Cross has a phenomenally well-organized system online, and when I received a list of the requisite trainings, I blitzed through them and sent in my information for background checks.

Suddenly, on Tuesday, I got a call asking me if I could fly over the next day. I had a dinner planned with visiting relatives on Wednesday night, but I promised I would leave on Thursday.

One of the best requisite courses was a video done by Hailama Farden, of Kamehameha Schools. Of course, his family has deep roots in Lahaina. The true genius of the course, and I’m sure the biggest burden, was trying to create an encapsulated lesson about the culture and language of Hawaii, for mainland people who, chances are, had never even been here. They probably never had the luxury of a Hawaii trip.

The clichéd phrase “salt of the earth” is remarkably accurate to describe these folks. And in order to be a volunteer, one must take to heart the creed that underlies the Red Cross mission: acceptance of anyone and everyone, whatever their race, religion, or any other life preferences. Everyone is equal, and underneath it all, we all have the same needs.

These wonderful people all flew a long way here, to sleep on a cot and work 12-hour shifts to fulfill those needs, for people in crisis. I see a lot of gray hair here, mature volunteers, who are wearing red vests and lanyards with enamel pins and patches memorializing “the big ones,” like ribbons from military campaigns. They all greet old friends they made at some other disaster, many moons ago.

They came to do good, not for themselves, but for other humans like them.

I’m a newbie, and I brought way too much stuff here because I followed their recommended packing list very literally. I used to make fun of my wife for packing too much for a Hawaii trip, saying, “I could go anywhere with just a backpack.” Well, these folks really can, and they choose to, over and over again, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

The most interesting thing about the Hailama Farden video was actually unspoken. It was a heartfelt expression of haahaa, humility and gratitude. He very carefully and precisely defined the word “haole.”

If you only glanced around this gym without actually meeting the people, their accents and skin color might cause you to jump to the wrong stereotypical conclusion. Yes, they came to do good, not for themselves, but for other humans like them. We do it because it’s the “pono” thing to do. It’s just what you do for others in our human family, our ohana — our lahui.

Our 12-hour workday starts at 7 in the morning, and everybody needs to wake up early to shower and dress for work, so there is a curfew. The lights go out at 10 p.m. and back on at 6 am. It’s a gym, so there’s no gentle dimming, just the “thunk” of sudden darkness.

Uh-oh — it’s 9:59! I hope I can finish writing this in time before …

Coming Tuesday: Picking up the pieces for survivors, and a meal to feast on.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


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About the Author

Tom Holowach

Tom Holowach was the manager of Paliku Theatre at Windward Community College in Kaneohe for 20 years. He has won multiple Pookela Awards for acting and produced a dozen Broadway musicals in Hawaii. A former broadcast newscaster and video producer, he is now a screenwriter specializing in true stories.


Latest Comments (0)

It's nice to see an article about the ARC and the unselfish people who join as unpaid volunteers.Mahalo for writing and Mahalo CB for publishing this article.I thought about joining but I don't think I can handle it nowadays.

Koaniani · 4 months ago

As a local volunteering through the Red Cross I was amazed and moved by the dedication and selflessness of the Red Cross volunteers who at a moments notice descended on Maui to do what them do so well….help their fellow human beings. I will move on to my life here on Maui…they will move on to some other place of need somewhere. They are beautiful people

jimd · 4 months ago

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Mauna2Moana · 4 months ago

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