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Ka‘u community adapts, perseveres during pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches the nine-month mark, residents in Ka‘u work to survive the virus together while witnessing a slight return to normalcy.

On Tuesday, Hawaii Island Food Basket served about 300 families with their Ohana Food Drop at the Naalehu Hongwanji Temple.

The Food Basket’s West Hawaii operations manager, Marshall Akamo, has been managing the food drops in Ka‘u throughout the program.

“We’ve seen more and more people come to the food drops each month,” Akamo said. “People from all the rural towns in Ka‘u have been showing up, because this is a small community that needs our help.”

The food drops in Naalehu have been serving people from Ocean View to Pahala most months.

“There was one month without a food drop, and it was not good,” volunteer Lali Jara said. “These distributions have been necessary and very helpful to the community.”

Jara is a retired Naalehu resident who has been volunteering with the food drops in Ka‘u. Although COVID-19 has not affected her as much, Jara has seen impacts of the pandemic throughout the rural community.

“It has been hard, but the people living here take care of each other,” Jara said. “We all know each other, and there is still that feeling of a small community.”

Naalehu resident Mary, who declined to give her last name, picked up groceries from the Ohana Food Drop and drove back to her home, which was located next door to the food drop site.

Although she is missing some normalcy, Mary said she has become accustomed to the new way of life the pandemic has brought on.

“I used to swim at the pool in Pahala at least three times a week, so I’ve been missing that,” Mary said. “I’ve done more walking, though, which has helped me physically.”

While staying active is necessary for her mental health, the food drops have helpful for Mary and many of her neighbors.

“A lot of us aren’t going to Hilo as much, so the food drops have made life easier for the community,” Mary said. “Some of the churches have also been giving out hot meals on the weekends, which is a blessing for some.”

Naalehu is located in the middle of a “food desert,” so it’s common for residents to travel to Hilo for a large shopping trip or for medical purposes.

However, without a working vehicle, it can become impossible for residents to get what they
need.

“Many people have stepped up to help others who are struggling right now,” Naalehu resident Ryan Williamson said. “Everyone understands that it can be very difficult to live here, so it’s common to see someone giving someone else the shirt off their back.”

Williamson owns Bee Boys, a honey and regenerative beekeeping business, and has been operating a shop out of Naalehu since 2017.

Williamson and his partner have had to change aspects of their business to keep it afloat, which has not been easy without the regular traffic of tourists.

However, Bee Boys has been getting more local traffic than Williamson could have predicted.

“Everyone is spending more time in their hometowns, because that’s what is safest right now,” Williamson said. “I also think more people have taken the time to explore their own island when interisland travel was not possible.”

Williamson and his partner usually make their products in the kitchen at the Cooper Center in Volcano, but have had to think of new ideas since the center is frequently closed and hard to book.

“We’re currently trying to build a kitchen at this location and have had to change up a lot of the ways we do business,” Williamson said. “Our wholesale accounts have come to a screeching halt, and we aren’t traveling to sell our products.”

While the pandemic has hurt Williamson financially, he has tried to make the best of it for himself and his business.

“Personally, the slowdown has been nice in ways. I’ve had more time for beekeeping and improving the business model,” Williamson said. “I’m still not making money, but the time and space has been rejuvenating.”

Life has begun to shift back to normalcy in Naalehu as Williamson and other business owners in the area have started to see more tourists each week.

“Myself and others have noticed the change for sure,” Williamson said. “It’s still nerve-wracking, but we know tourism can’t stop forever.”

In Pahala, resident Peter Volpe has been pleased with his community and how they have handled COVID-19 precautions.

“Most people here have been taking this seriously the whole time,” Volpe said. “I just got out of a small meeting, and we were all wearing masks.”

Volpe was visiting the post office, which only allows two people inside at a time.

Signs around Pahala’s tiny shopping area remind people to wear masks and practice social distancing while indoors.

“I think it helps that there aren’t a lot of places to go,” Volpe said. “We just do what we need to do and leave.”

While Volpe is happy carrying on his daily life a little differently, he and his wife have started to miss traveling to different islands.

Volpe and his wife are both retired and usually visit their family on Maui every other month. January was the last time the couple was able to see their family due to the unrelenting spread of COVID-19.

“A lot of us, especially seniors, are just waiting to get off the island when it’s safer to do so,” Volpe said. “We follow the guidelines and news coming from the county and state to gauge what we can do.”
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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