For the Red Cross shelter residents and volunteers at the Pahoa Community Center on the Big Island in Hawaii, inspiration for the continuance of a life well lived is embodied by 65-year-old “Auntie” Wilhemina Kamalamalama-de Souza. Rolling in her wheelchair through the shelter, where she has resided since Mount Kilauea ripped open her neighborhood, this singular woman has inspired an ad hoc shelter family, or Ohana, with tight connections to other shelter residents.
After 38 years of dogged persistence, Wilhemina marks May 12, 2018 as the day she graduated from the University of Hawaii – Hilo with three degrees. The first in her family to ever graduate, she dressed in her cap and gown in the shelter parking lot and went on to accept a Bachelor of Philosophy, Bachelor in Women’s Studies, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Attending the ceremony was her wife, Linda K de Souza, several other evacuees from her new Red Cross shelter family and two Amazon Grey Parrots named Mary Magdalene and Cluckie. Two Red Cross volunteers inspired by her also made it a point to cheer her on at the ceremony.
During this period of disruption due to volcanic activity, their family space has become a community hub. Placed centrally in the Pahoa District Park, both the enclosed gym and the exterior landscape are filled by a combination of tents, cots and animal crates. Wilhemina and her wife set up their temporary evacuation home in a donated grey domed tent they call “The Garage.” Located in the middle of the gym, it is filled with the precious few items they were able to take with them, in the last chaotic moments before fleeing their home. Together for forty years, both are saddened that so much history was left behind.
A bonded collection of residents moves in and out of their area, sharing stories and news in a therapeutic way that can only occur when people feel well cared for and safe. Although residents are predictably under stress, Wilhemina seems to have a special brand of calming influence. Laughing, her theory is shared in a surprisingly nonchalant manner. “I am dying, you know. I have cancer and should have been gone a while ago. I believe I was left here just for this. I’m practicing my Philosophy degree, to help people stay mellow, even before I graduate.”
“Red Cross has been showing us much Aloha in this time that we need it so much,” offered Linda. “People have really tried to make us feel comfortable. Sometimes it has been hard with so many wanting and needing. But, we have a roof over our head, good plate lunches and our birds. The future will come the way that it comes. Goddess Pele will do as she will. In the meantime, we are in good hands with the Red Cross.”