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Single mom battles heart disease, builds new life on Big Island after Maui wildfires

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  • COURTESY CIJON CHEE
                                Cijon Chee, a single mother and heart disease patient, relocated her family of four to the Big Island after the Maui wildfires destroyed their home and material possessions.

    COURTESY CIJON CHEE

    Cijon Chee, a single mother and heart disease patient, relocated her family of four to the Big Island after the Maui wildfires destroyed their home and material possessions.

After the devastating Aug. 8 Lahaina firestorm laid waste to their home and material possessions, single-mother Cijon Chee, 28, and her three children moved to the Big Island to rebuild their life from the ground up.

Chee had been at work that day, and while her children safely escaped the fire with the help of their neighbors, she didn’t realize what had happened until driving home from her shift at about 3:30 p.m.

“By the time I got stuck by Wahikuli area, I could see all the black smoke but I didn’t know the extent of it,” Chee said. “When it hit 5 o’clock, I was panicking already, and that’s when I broke the barricade and shot it to Front Street to try to get to my apartment.”

Chee, a domestic violence survivor, had moved her family to Maui only about nine months prior.

After the fire, Chee, her daughters Teliyah, 11, and Kailani, 4, and 2-year-old son, Tyde, were left with only the clothes on their back, she said.

“We’re still going to therapy, my oldest daughter and I,” Chee said. “She saw a lot of things an 11-year-old shouldn’t have seen. … and now I’m afraid to fully go back to work because I kind of have that guilty conscience like I should have been with my kids that day.”

Chee was reunited with her children at 3 a.m. the following day, and the four of them were housed at the Red Cross shelter in Papakea. The next day, Chee realized that the ordeal had caused her to suffer a stroke after her father noticed that her face was sagging.

After having an MRI done, her doctors told her the cause was her history of heart disease, which had put her in heart failure about eight years ago. After undergoing open heart surgery in 2015 and a stent catheter procedure in 2020, she stabilized. But after the wildfires, Chee’s doctors warned that high stress levels could increase her risk of further complications and recommended she meet with a cardiologist to discuss a second potential valve replacement surgery.

In the days following, Chee found herself emotionally unable to resume her previous routine at work and decided to take a leave of absence. After about two weeks, Chee was able to find and rent an affordable home on the Big Island, to which she relocated her family and in which they currently live.

The father of Chee’s children also lives on the Big Island, and despite being separated, he and Chee are now working on a co- parenting relationship. Meanwhile, Chee found on-call work cleaning homes, and spends her free time with her children working on a small farm on their father’s property.

Despite having to restart from scratch, Chee describes her ordeal as a wake- up call from her previous life, which was filled with long work hours that kept her from spending time with her children.

“Tomorrow is never promised,” Chee said. “You don’t want to leave things left unsaid or uneasy and just spending time with my family — I mean, it’d be good if I had consistent work, but money’s not everything.”

BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

The annual Good Neighbor Fund, a charitable partnership between Helping Hands Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and First Hawaiian Bank, helps struggling individuals and families during the holiday season.

This year under the Adopt A Family Program, 600 families are seeking assistance with food, clothing, toys and household items. Donations to the Good Neighbor Fund also assist Helping Hands with operational costs for the nonprofit’s Community Clearinghouse Program, which helps people with basic necessities throughout the year, at 2100 N. Nimitz Highway.

The hours for Adopt A Family donations (new items) are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For general donations for the Community Clearinghouse (gently used items), drop-off is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

How to help

People can drop off cash or checks to the “Good Neighbor Fund” at any First Hawaiian Bank branch statewide until Dec. 30. To donate specifically to Chee, include the code: HHH-144.

Here is the latest list of donors to the 2023 Good Neighbor Fund:

>> Class of ‘73 — Celebrating 50 years of friendship $8,416.21

>> Anonymous $2,502

>> Edwin S.N. Wong Foundation $2,000

>> Bank of America Charitable Gift Fund $1,000

>> In honor of Breene Harimoto $1,000

>> Pascua Damian Ohana $1,000

>> 91 MS Elaine and Jamie Wong $500

>> In memory of Marcia K. Ho $500

>> In memory of S.S. Miyashiro $500

>> John L. Noland $500

>> Paul H. Lewis $500

>> The Saito Family $500

>> Dale, Kryss, Matthew and Timothy Okuda $400

>> Dixie Thompson $300

>> From (late) Steven, Eloise, Lawrence and Florence in memory of Harold and Setsuko Muramoto $300

>> From Yasuo, Stanley, Warren, Wallace, Judy, Kenneth, Doris, Richard and Lynn in memory of Nobushige and Masako Nakasone $300

>> In memory of Barbara and George Lum $300

>> Joyce T. Suzuki $300

>> Stephen S.F. Choy $300

>> Gloria P. Huber $250

>> Helene Shenkus $250

>> In memory of Takeo and Mitsue Abe $250

>> Janice Nuckols $250

>> Janice R.K. Kakazu $250

>> Eric Koyanagi $204.56

>> Louise N. Matsushige $200

>> Thomas B.S. Chun $200

>> Arlene L. Koegler $150

>> Glenn S. Hamada $150

>> Dayle Osborn $102.53

>> George DeConte II $100

>> Grammie, Matt, Micah and Ashy $100

>> Hina, Kai and Natto Kikuta $100

>> In memory of Craig Hiser $100

>> In memory of the Choi Family, the Kim Family, the Boulware Family, and the Fukunaga Family $100

>> Jim and Susan Ohana $100

>> John C. Kiner II $100

>> Marcia L. Anderson $100

>> Marie Harris $100

>> Mary K. Bailey $100

>> Mary Lou Yoshino $100

>> Merry Christmas Haksoon and James Mercado, Rene Catalan, Angelita and Frank Catalan and all our furry babies. We love and miss you all. Jeanne, Richard, Noelle, Justin, Devon, Noah, Aria, Peter and our furry babies. $100

>> Milton M. Oshiro $100

>> Sylvia Y. Brown $100

>> Thomas Y. Nakano $100

>> William P. and Julie S.K. DeCosta $100

>> With aloha the Enloe Ohana $100

>> Beny Pacubas $75

>> Wesley Boy and Grampa $75

>> Deanne E.L. Enos $50

>> Ethel Setsuko Masui $50

>> In memory of Jeanette Y. Yamashiro $50

>> In memory of Lavinia $50

>> James Botsas $50

>> Patti L. Tildsley $50

>> Toni Fujinaga $50

>> Kazuo Iwasaki $36.95

>> Ray and M.L. $35

>> Rebecca L. Covert $30

>> Margaret Tamaye $25

>> Patsy Uehara $25

>> Patrick E. Carvalho $20

>> Remigia Cabusas $10

>> King Hang Siu $6.12

Weekly total: $25,763.37

Previous week’s total: $16,045.09

Grand total: $41,808.46


Linsey Dower covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member of Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.


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