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Lending a Hand and a Heart: UOlivet Students Volunteer in Maui Wildfire Relief

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Nine Comets traveled to Maui, Hawaii, for three weeks to help people affected by the wildfires. As part of UOlivet's service learning program, the Comets built tiny homes, prepared and delivered meals, and worked at distribution hubs.

For most people, Hawaii is a dream vacation—a place to relax on gorgeous beaches, swim in the ocean and enjoy island life. However, nine UOlivet students spent their time rebuilding lives and communities in Hawaii rather than relaxing by the beach.

The wildfires on Maui in 2023 were the fifth deadliest wildland fire in U.S. history and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history. The fire destroyed more than 2,200 structures and caused $5.5 billion in damages. The hardest hit was the historic district of Lahaina, where more than 100 lives were lost.

In partnership with All Hands and Hearts, the Comets spent three weeks helping to build tiny homes, preparing and delivering meals and working at distribution hubs.

Three of the students shared their service trip experiences with us.

Kaitlin Dyer: Rising sophomore, psychology major

As a future mental health therapist, Kaitlin Dyer viewed this service trip as an opportunity to support a meaningful cause while gaining exposure to diverse cultures and individuals facing challenges she had yet to encounter.

“I lived in a hot, communal tent for almost three weeks, which is not something that is typical of doing service work. This changed my perspective on many things because while I was out of my comfort zone, I realized that many locals there aren’t as fortunate as I was to have a living space,” Kaitlin said. “I believe this was an amazing way for me to understand the different ways I can offer my service.”

Kaitlin also experienced how helping in even small ways can have an enormous impact on the lives of others. “While I was working at Napili Noho, a distribution hub of items such as food and hygiene materials, I helped an elderly woman look through the various items and helped carry eggs, bread, sanitary items and first aid supplies through the hub.” Kaitlin said. “I helped bring the items to her vehicle, and she reached in to offer a hug and blessed me for helping her. This warmed my heart because while I never knew what she had gone through, I was still able to help her.”

Kaitlin left Maui feeling inspired by the people she had the opportunity to get to know and work with. “I learned about the goodness of volunteers who all come from different backgrounds and places to work together to rebuild a community. I saw the empathy of everyone I worked with, and I learned more about how I can continue to have empathy even when I was feeling overworked,” she said.

Rylee Lewis: Rising sophomore, biology major, pre-veterinary concentration

Rylee Lewis has always been motivated to participate in community service. Being a part of UOlivet’s Difference Makers program, she has taken several service trips. When the opportunity to volunteer in Maui was presented, “I knew this would be a good opportunity to contribute to this community in need,” she said.

Having past volunteer experience, Rylee knew there would be challenging aspects of the trip. “The work we did in Maui was tedious, and if you were on construction, it would get really hot,” Rylee said. “However, whenever I felt unmotivated or tired, I would remember that every little piece of food I cut for our meal service or every piece of wood I had to carry would end up helping somebody’s life. It was a humbling experience realizing I could be in a much worse situation, making me incredibly grateful as well.”

Reflecting on the experience, Rylee shared her thoughts on what “Be More. Do Good.” means to her. “The work we did in Maui aligns with UOlivet’s ‘Be More. Do Good.’ because it wasn’t something that we had to do. Living in a hot, muddy tent with 30 other people with you and working six-hour days for three weeks doesn’t sound like the most amazing thing, so it takes a certain type of person to be a part of this. The Olivet students committed to it and wanted to be there to make a difference. And I’m sure we would all go back in a heartbeat. The ‘Good’ we created helped feed over 1,000 people and build six new mini homes – something we will never forget.”

At the end of the trip, Rylee walked away with more than she came with to Maui. “This trip was a physical and mindful growth experience. Not only did I get to learn construction work, food preparation and customer service skills, but going on this service trip gave me a new perspective, knowledge on a new culture and inspiration to continue service work,” she said.

Dominick Schoenborn: Rising senior, criminal justice major, psychology minor

Dominick Schoenborn has grown up in a family dedicated to community service, frequently volunteering in his hometown of Grand Rapids and with his Adelphic Alpha Pi brothers. Drawn by the chance to help those in need, he joined the service trip to Maui. “The island of Maui is a beautiful place with so much history that deserves all the help to rebuild the affected community,” said Dominick.

However, once the plane landed, Dominick began second-guessing his decision to travel all the way to Hawaii to volunteer. “When I first arrived at the base camp in Maui, I questioned what I got myself into. We were living on a goat farm with two portable toilets, showers in a shipping container, and sleeping in tents. I had never done something like this before, especially for that amount of time. I knew that in order to enjoy my experience, I needed to embrace the uncomfortable experience I was in. After I became more open-minded and wanting to help others, I was able to enjoy my experience even more.

I realized that there is always a situation that can potentially be worse than yours and you can always help others. This trip made me think that everybody should have the chance to be a part of a service trip not only to help others, but to meet new people, travel, learn new things and push yourself to be a better person,” said Dominick.

While in Maui, Dominick also had the opportunity to learn and experience Hawaiian culture. He said, “Something that I learned and saw firsthand was that Ohana, which means family, is a very important aspect of the Hawaiian culture. There were two families in a neighborhood in Lahaina surrounded by many other houses on their street. Their houses were the only two houses that were not damaged by the wildfires. Because of those families’ beliefs and caring nature, they gave up their homes for their neighbors who had lost their homes. Meanwhile, the two families are now currently living in tents in a public park in Lahaina where the All Hands and Hearts program was once based. The action to give up their homes to help others is not an easy task, but the families acted unselfishly to help others in need.”

For the guy who didn’t know what he was getting himself into, he was named volunteer of the week by the All Hands and Hearts organization. “I take pride in this because Olivet taught me so much and put me in the position to help others where it is needed,” said Dominick.

In the three weeks the Comets were in Maui, they built six mini homes and helped feed over 1,000 people. Casey Eldridge, community service coordinator and alum, led the team of UOlivet student volunteers.

UOlivet believes that with success comes responsibility to oneself and the greater community. Every major discipline offers a course that explores and addresses real-world problems in the classroom and beyond campus boundaries. Students participate in a fall and spring service day, and opportunities to travel locally, regionally and nationally afford students exceptional service learning and volunteer opportunities. Students may even earn a $2,000 scholarship renewable over four years as a member of the Difference Maker program.

Learn more about The University of Olivet by contacting the Office of Admission at admissions@UOlivet.edu or 269-749-7635.

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