PAHOA, Hawaii >> The Bodacious Women of Pahoa are living up to their name by running a relief center and other services for Puna residents affected by the Kilauea eruption, while making sure their own community is prepared for the next calamity.
The group started in 2012 with a half-dozen friends gathering once a month at a member’s home to socialize.
“We come from different walks of life, different cultures, different religious beliefs, and we leave all that on the side and come together as sisters,” said chief organizer Ronnette Gonsalves, 52, of Nanawale Estates.
A year later they expanded into community service, offering a monthly food pantry in association with a small, local nonprofit run by Luana Jones. When Jones scaled back her activities, the Bodacious Women decided to keep up the work, which Gonsalves said prepared members for the disasters to come.
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They didn’t have to wait long to put what they had learned into action, as Hurricane Iselle hit the Big Island in the summer of 2014.
“When (Jones) pulled back we continued on, and when Iselle hit we were able to stand and take the front line,” Gonsalves said. The group’s storm relief efforts included providing bags of groceries to 300 to 500 households from Pahala in Kau to Honokaa on the Hamakua coast.
“We offered 15 days of relief services, and that’s what gave us the experience and lessons to make ready for the next disaster, which is now,” she said.
IN THE aftermath of Iselle, the Bodacious Women decided to go bigger with their disaster response strategy. They stationed Matson shipping containers in three Puna communities that can be stocked with food and other emergency supplies as needed during a crisis, in case residents are cut off from help. The group and their male supporters did just that, filling a container in Kapoho before the area was inundated by lava from the Kilauea eruption that started May 3. (The container was spared.)
The group, which now numbers about two dozen members, opened a relief center May 9 at the Nanawale Estates community center, where an average of 50 to 80 people a day have been dropping by to pick up food, clothing and household and personal hygiene items. The center is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
So far the Bodacious Women have distributed more than 35,000 pounds of food donated by Food Basket-Hawaii Island, according to Alanna Bumatay, outreach specialist with the local food bank. (Because Gonsalves believes in transparency, she requests that any monetary donations for her group be sent directly to the Food Basket; call 933-6030 or visit hawaiifoodbasket.org.)
Last week the women started a weekly meal pickup at the community center, at 4 p.m. Thursdays, in partnership with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which prepared 200 dinners for the first event. Gonsalves and other volunteers also are well versed in what other disaster aid is available to volcano victims and have been directing those needing help to the appropriate county, state, federal and nonprofit agencies.
Ruby Piano, 40, said she often brings her three children, ages 8 to 15, to the center to use the playground and Wi-Fi internet service as she works to rebuild their lives. Piano has been staying in Nanawale Estates since her family lost their Lanipuna Gardens home to lava along with several of the 50 beehives she kept for her honey business, Bee Mo Bettah.
“I bring my kids with me so they can meet up with friends and be kids,” she said.
“We’re starting from the ground up,” said Piano, choking back tears. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from people who care and from friends. It feels good to see there are people who care.”
The Bodacious Women take their relief work on the road every Saturday, caravaning to smaller communities along the Puna coast to deliver breathing masks and other emergency supplies, and talking story with residents about any issues that might require their action.
CONSIDERING Nanawale Estates’ proximity to the volcanic activity along Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone, the volunteers have assumed some self-appointed civil defense duties for their sprawling neighborhood, which comprises 1,300 lots, 700 homes and 37 miles of roads.
This includes contacting residents who stayed and those who moved away temporarily to check on their welfare and keep them informed on a regular basis, and so officials will know who is left in the area should evacuations be necessary.
Gonsalves, who said she moved from Oahu to the quiet, rural subdivision in 2003 so her seven children could grow up in a more “sheltered” environment, is also encouraging residents to drop by the center to create a photo ID so they will have proof of residency should access to the community be restricted due to eruption hazards, as happened in other lava-stricken neighborhoods.
“It’s best to be prepared than not,” she said.
It’s worth noting the Bodacious Women of Pahoa do all this good work pretty much on gumption alone. In keeping with its low-profile nature, the group does not use a computer to plan and keep track of its activities and does not have a website. Its most recent Facebook post is from 2015; members publicize their events on cardboard signs and bedsheets spray-painted with messages and strung on trees.
Gonsalves carries a clipboard holding sheets of handwritten instructions, to-do lists and notes with her flashes of inspiration, which she said spring from her Mormon faith.
“Bodacious is contagious” is the group’s motto, and now the women are spreading their volunteer spirit to Kauai in a campaign to donate 100 fully stocked backpacks to schoolchildren affected by the April flooding on that island.
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