HILO — Known by many as “the hub,” a grassroots supply distribution center started by Pu‘uhonua o Puna has become a lifeline for many affected by the Kilauea eruption in lower Puna.
Pu‘uhonua means “refuge” in Hawaiian and many describe the volunteer-run center at the intersection of highways 132 and 130 as just that.
“It’s like an oasis,” said evacuee Cheron Freeman while looking at racks of clothes. She said she’s been living in a tent in Orchidland since the volcano began pushing people out of subdivisions and burning homes nearly two months ago.
“There’s everything you need here from dog food, to tooth brushes, to clothes. It’s wonderful,” Freeman added. “That’s what it is — it’s aloha.”
Pu‘uhonua also offers showers, has a pantry of canned food and, with the help of World Central Kitchen, provides three hot meals a day to hundreds of people. It’s all donated and all free for evacuees.
“We thank God for this place,” said evacuee Mohala Callahan. “We’re only taking what we can use at the time.”
But she said her family is always surprised by what they can find there.
“We know if we don’t have it, they’ll say, ‘Let me find it for you,’” Callahan said.
Ikaika Marzo, who formed the group along with several friends, said the hub will keep going until the eruption stops.
“I woke up one morning and I was like, ‘We got to do this,’” he said. “And I called these people and we did it.”
The land was offered for use by Gilbert Aguinaldo, who is also one of the main organizers of the micro-unit shelter at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Marzo said the hub started with one tent and a few tables and has grown continually for the past two months as donations poured in and volunteers stepped in to help.
He said there are about 15 volunteers who are there every day.
Keala Martins, a volunteer captain, said people have been showing up to help from as far as Kauai. Volunteers include people who have lost their homes.
“People want to give their time because they’ve been given so much,” she said.
While food and supplies are free, Martins said they are meant for those who have been impacted by the eruption. Those who are not from the area are asked kindly to leave.
Mary and Edward Kamanu of Kalapana said they evacuated their home for awhile because of the poor air quality and Pele’s hair that falls on their yard. They still haven’t moved everything back home because they don’t know when they’ll have to leave again. They say they stop by the hub to talk story and keep in touch with the community.
“If they didn’t have something like this, everyone would be piled up at the (recreation) center,” said Edward Kamanu, referring to one of the Red Cross shelters.
“Here you feel more welcome,” he added. “It’s Puna run. Because it’s Puna run, you have to have aloha. You give.”
Marzo, who was visibly exhausted Tuesday from two months of documenting the eruption and assisting the community, said the hub shows the aloha spirit is strong and that people continue to give even when they’re at their limit.
“A village takes care of the village and a community takes care of the community,” he said. “The thought is always there. You just have to have somebody pull the trigger and do it. That’s just the nature of what’s happening now.”
The same could be said about the volunteer kitchen on the other side of town where the hub’s meals are cooked.
It’s operated by World Central Kitchen, an organization set up by chefs to provide meals for people in disaster areas.
Chef Tim Kilcoyne from Ventura, Calif., said they also cook for a group of evacuees at the Pahoa shelter, volunteers building transitional units at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the summer fun program in Pahoa, and one meal a day to residents in Kalapana. He estimates 1,000 meals a day — with food donated or purchased from local businesses — are cooked in the kitchen donated by Sal Luquin.
But when Kilcoyne first arrived after the start of the eruption, he said he didn’t find too many open doors. He said the county told him the help wasn’t needed at the shelters so he got connected to Pu‘uhonua o Puna by Ashley Kierkiewicz, a County Council candidate whose campaign signs he had seen in the area.
“I think they don’t want somebody to come in and get some press or whatever and then leave,” Kilcoyne said, regarding his initial rejection. “It’s not about that. It’s all about giving back to the community, bringing community together.”
It’s also about raising spirits.
“People just lost everything,” he said. “People were evacuated, people need comfort, they need one thing to make them smile and food usually does that.”
Volunteers on Tuesday included chef Sam Choy, who lives in Kona.
“It’s so important we help out and we give,” he said. “You give till it hurts. It’s really a sad situation.”
The restaurant is a former fast food joint near the Pahoa roundabout. Luquin, who’s donating the site, plans to open a new Mexican restaurant there after his original location burned down last year.
Luquin said he has homes in Leilani Estates and Alaili Road, both places under evacuation. His family is currently living in the restaurant’s lobby.
“I’ve been doing business in the community for 34 years so it feels good to give it back to them,” Luquin said.
Kilcoyne said he began contributing to the shelter after being connected with evacuee April Buxton, who was cooking for friends and others at the shelter out of her own pocket.
The Salvation Army also stepped in to cook three meals a day for evacuees. But World Central Kitchen continues to help fill the need there.
Donovan Shroyer, an evacuee who is staying at the Pahoa shelter, helps the organization serve meals at the shelter.
“The food is just incredible,” he said.
“It’s really good for the spirit. It’s really good for people’s morale.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.