When Wantagh resident Jasmine Chu saw the devastation caused by the Maui wildfires, she knew she needed to do something to help those who lost everything.
Chu, 24, formerly lived in Oahu, Hawaii, where she met friends who were born and raised in Lahaina. When Chu heard about the fires, she reached out to them, and they told her about families who lost their homes, possessions, and even loved ones to the blaze. Chu wanted to help out, so she came up with an idea to raise money by selling handmade jewelry.
“I kind of figured that this would be a great way to raise money and awareness of what's happening over there,” Chu said, “and help my friends’ families out in any way that I could.”
Chu makes her necklaces out of seashells that she finds while working as a lifeguard at Jones Beach. She charges $55 for a necklace, with 100 percent of the money going directly to her friends to help their families rebuild. She also has received donations from people, but she would still send them necklaces as a thank you.
"I felt like it was a good way to send out gratitude,” Chu said of the necklaces, “and just thank people for coming together to help my friends when they're in need.”
A series of destructive wildfires raged through the Hawaiian island of Maui on Aug. 8. The fires resulted in more than 100 deaths, and destroyed homes across thousands of acres of land. The aftermath left thousands of families struggling to rebuild.
“It's just heartbreaking,” Chu said of the devastation.
For Chu, any small act can cause a ripple effect, and she witnessed that first-hand while raising money for her friends.
Chu’s co-worker, Eric Gentile, saw her fundraiser on social media. At the time, his son, Desmond Torres, 10, wanted to operate a lemonade stand, and decided to sell lemonade to raise money for the Maui cause. Desmond, along with his brother, Joseph Torres, 11, and sister, Sarah Gentile, 2, set up the stand with their cousins in Long Beach. They raised $200, and donated all of it to help Chu.
“They were happy to help,” Eric Gentile said of his kids. “They were super excited to have a lemonade stand and for the money to help people that actually needed it.”
Chu has raised more than $4,000 in a month from donations. Sunday was her last day of collecting money, and she said she is grateful for the contributions.
“I'm very prideful in how much my community over here has come together to help my friends out in Hawaii,” Chu said.
One of Chu’s friends is Nia Okimoto, who was born and raised in Lahaina. While she currently lives in Oahu, Okimoto said she has a brother, cousins and friends living in Lahaina who lost everything.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Okimoto said of the Maui fires. “It’s like a nightmare that we can’t wake up from.”
When the fires started, Okimoto reached out to friends and family living in Lahaina to check up on them, but couldn’t get through. The flames had destroyed power lines, leaving many in the area unable to get in touch with anyone.
“If anyone was in Lahaina when this happened, they did not know what was going on,” Okimoto said, “because they were cut off to the rest of the world.”
For three days, Okimoto said she could not get in touch with anyone in Lahaina. She was able to find out who was okay through word-of-mouth. Eventually, her friends and family made it out safely, but they had lost everything. Their houses and personal possessions were burnt to the ground.
“They’re just living in this unknown,” Okimoto said of her family.
She said her friends and relatives are now staying in hotels and living with other family members. She added that the shelters are packed, and described one shelter as being so full that people were pitching tents on the grass near the parking lot.
Despite the tragic situation, Okimoto expressed hope for the future.
“Everyone is helping,” Okimoto said, “everyone from around the world. They’re sending main necessities, bringing in food by boats. It’s the glimmer of hope that I have that Lahaina will rebuild.”
When Okimoto heard of her friend Chu’s fundraising efforts, and Gentile’s kids pitching in with a lemonade stand, she became emotional.
“When you have friends like Jasmine, and strangers, like those kids helping, it’s very hopeful and heartwarming, and that’s how I know that we’ll make it,” Okimoto said. “That’s how I know that we will rebuild. That’s the hope.”