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Students describe ‘sobering’ sight, offer help and hope to victims of Maui wildfire

Temporary homes provide short-term help for families who lost houses in the Hawaiian fires. (Photos by Sarah Wofford)

When junior biblical studies student Grace Weaver arrived at the worksite to help with cleanup from the wildfire that ravaged Maui last month, she was not expecting complete devastation. She saw rows of houses that had been leveled, displacing thousands of Hawaiian residents, and streets that had been shut down and abandoned.

“Seeing that side of the devastation with people who don’t know if they will be able to recover from what’s happened was sobering,” she said. “It was so amazing to be a part of the construction work and lay a new foundation, even if it’s a temporary 8×12-foot home, for these people to restart their lives. I was grateful to see the light that can come from things like this, but the actual witnessing the devastation was super sobering.”

Weaver was part of a 12-person team from Liberty University’s Serve Now disaster response program dispatched to Lahaina, on the island of Maui, Hawaii, last week. Partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, the group constructed temporary housing units alongside Hui Homes and sifted through ashes for personal possessions lost in the fire that raged across the island on Aug. 8, leading to 97 deaths and deemed the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century. In the historic town of Lahaina, the fire is estimated to have affected more than 3.4 square miles, destroying or otherwise damaging over 2,200 structures.

Weaver said this was her first time doing disaster relief work with Serve Now.

“It was unlike anything that I personally had ever done before. It was such a blessing for me to see the joy these people had despite the things that had happened to them and the way that so many of them, whether or not they know the Lord, have hope for the future.”

Senior videography student Sarah Wofford, who works as a student worker for Marketing and chronicled the trip through videos and photos, said the trip helped her relate to those affected by the tragedy.

“It’s a whole different thing when you’re actually there and actually seeing the devastation,” she said. “I was able to meet and talk with some people who were victims of the fire and they either lost loved ones or lost their homes. It was very impactful to talk to them and get to hear from their perspective of actually experiencing it.”

In addition to the physical labor, the team members also used their time to share the Gospel and provide a message of hope to residents. They distributed Bibles provided by Samaritan’s Purse and wrote encouraging notes inside. One resident said she appreciated the Bible because it was an item that she had personally lost in the fire.

“Whether people are saved or not, the hope that the Bible offers is so significant to people who don’t know the Lord,” Weaver said. “It’s a representation of things in a small way going back to normal. Here was a belonging that they lost and we were able to replace. To someone who has lost everything, being able to present that was an offering of hope.”

“When you add the ministry aspect, it just means more when it comes to being able to serve people,” added junior James Gengaro. “It’s great to be able to serve people and provide some type of relief, assistance, and physical and emotional care to them, but when you add the Gospel to it, it provides the real reason into why you’re doing all of that.”

Gengaro has participated in three trips with Serve Now after assisting with hurricane cleanup in Englewood, Fla., in January and tornado cleanup in Mayfield, Ky., last fall.

Jasmine McKeever, communications coordinator for Development, and Jared Shotton, a resident director on Campus East, served as leaders. McKeever had visited Lahaina in July and said she felt a longing to return to help the residents. Both praised the students for their work ethic and commitment to ministering to the victims.

“I’m thankful for the amazing group of students who first represented Christ well, and then represented Liberty and Samaritan’s Purse so well,” Shotton said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for our team. Their service to the people of Hawaii and also their service to the Lord led to such a deep and meaningful joy within our team that we will carry on for a long time.”

Liberty Serve Now conducts several trips each semester to serve the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of individuals and communities, working alongside world-class organizations and leaders.

Liberty has also set up a Support Maui Fund to help provide shelter, food, and hygiene supplies for citizens impacted by the wildfires.

The trip to Lahaina marked LU Serve Now’s first trip in the 2023-24 academic year. This week, another team of 12 is serving in Perry, Fla., to help with cleanup from Hurricane Idalia and will return on Sept. 30. A third team will be deploying Oct. 8-13 (over Fall Break) to Jackson, Ky., with Samaritan’s Purse to help residents rebuild after historic flooding last fall. The trip will be Serve Now’s second trip to Jackson. Earlier this year, the program sent students to Englewood, Fla., for hurricane relief and Griffin, Ga., for tornado relief.

Liberty’s 12-member team built temporary houses for residents of Lahaina.
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