Editor's note: blog author Sheila Mae Arcala, Lahainaluna c/o 2025, participated in the inaugural TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui cohort.

On August 8th, 2023, that was the day the fire started, and the day after that was the day I lost my hope. I had so much faith during the fire, I kept telling myself that everything is alright, Lahaina is ok, the fire will die down, and my house will be alright. That was until my dad went back to Lahaina after the day of the fire and came back with only pictures and videos of what was left of our neighborhood, our town, and our house. That was the moment I felt my hope for Lahaina shriveled down, but I kept persisting to myself that it was alright, and we can rebuild back. However, after seeing my house for the first time in person, I felt somewhat heavy, like I wanted to cry but I just couldn’t. Nothing was salvageable, the fire left only rubble and ashes. Looking around my neighborhood, all I could see was the remains that the fire left behind. From there, that was when I started believing that it’ll be impossible for Lahaina to start over.

Post author, Sheila Mae Arcala

That all changed after applying for the TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui program. I joined, thinking I could learn to cope with the traumatic experience. Instead, I learned a lot more. I experienced being with people who had gone through similar trauma from different disasters. I heard stories and perspectives from those who experienced the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and learned how they recovered and coped. Though, the greatest revelation was seeing them all still thriving after such devastation. Despite the destruction, they didn’t leave; they came together as a community and rebuilt. I admired their resilience, and it encouraged me to believe that Lahaina has a chance to take back what the fire stole. If Higashimatsushima could recover from such huge devastation, I know Maui can too. The TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui program lives up to its name because it brought back my hope and changed my perspective from “it’s impossible” to “it’s possible.”

TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui Cohort #1 at the Goto Suisan Oyster farm in Higashimatsushima

Not only did the program bring back my hope, but the program also showed me the importance of community. Being a community proves to create more solutions as during those nightly debriefs with the others gave us a moment to be together as a group to brainstorm and share ideas on what we all can do to help Lahaina.

Higashimatsushima also taught me how being a community meant bringing out more ideas. They came together to think of ways to reinforce their town against future disasters, like the installation of seawalls. This inspired and encouraged me to contribute to my community, something I never tried to do after the fire because I didn’t know where to start. Seeing Higashimatsushima apply those seawalls gave me an idea: instead of rebuilding, I could help reinforce Lahaina and find ways to prevent another wildfire. That’s where I am now. I’m currently part of a school program focusing on addressing the problem of the dry land surrounding our town, which often causes wildfires. 

Cohort #1 participating in the Sato Umi (Mountain Ocean) concept in Ishinomaki, Japan

The program provided a great experience. It truly lifted my spirits; it made me the happiest I have been since the fire. I learned many things and saw how I could apply that knowledge in my community. For example, after learning about Zazen during the trip, I started teaching it to others at my school as a coping and healing technique for those dealing with the aftermath of the fire or other issues. Besides learning and experiences, I made strong bonds with people in the program. I formed friendships with people I used to see at school but never talked to, but now, after the Japan trip, I now say hi while walking past them. The program left me with everlasting memories, and I wish it could have lasted a bit longer.