After tragedy at home, student finds solace at GCU

Maria Rodriguez Pereira found comfort in her Associated Students of GCU family when she grieved for her friends and family back home in Maui. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Editor’s note: My LopeLife is a GCU Magazine feature in which GCU students, staff and alumni share enlightening experiences. To be considered for My LopeLife, please email a short synopsis of your suggested topic to [email protected] with “My LopeLife” in the subject field. To read the digital version of the November issue of GCU Magazine, click here.

By Maria Rodriguez Pereira

I was born in Alajuela, Costa Rica, and shortly afterward moved to Maui, Hawai’i, at age 3. My mom immigrated to the United States so she could provide for our family and move us forward in life. I consider myself to have a luxury many people don’t have. I don’t mean the high-end, materialistic things, but the luxury of living in culturally diverse places.

Growing up, the only family around me was my mom, older sister and grandma. I wasn’t exposed to much of the Latin community, but my family managed to keep me enriched in my roots while adapting Hawaiian culture, morals and values. Diversity is a huge thing in Hawai’i, and I am so blessed to say I grew up in a community that appreciated differences and characteristics that are more than skin deep.

Maria Rodriguez Pereira (left) gets a hug from fellow student Megan Campbell-Smith upon completing their landscaping work during the Lopes Go Local Habitat for Humanity event on Nov. 5, 2022. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

On Aug. 8, 2023, our community was turned completely upside down by an unprecedented wildfire that hit Lahaina, a significantly historic town on the west side of Maui. Its history is rich with kings, queens, chiefs and ship captains, many of them buried in a small cemetery there. The town is built on history that cannot be replicated. It is so much more than a tourist hotspot; it is home to many people who cultivated an extremely tight-knit community. People take pride in saying they are from Lahaina.

Lahaina always has felt like a second home to me. I spent a lot of time growing up there because it is where my family and I went to church. For a short time, my older sister and grandma lived in Lahaina, so I spent the weekends with them.

Organizing ASGCU events is one of Maria Rodriguez Pereira's passions. (Photo courtesy of ASGCU)

Waking up on Aug. 9 to the news of a wildfire that grew rapidly overnight and started taking many homes was devastating. I already was back on campus, and after a long day of student leadership training, I finally checked my phone. It was blown up with headlines about how the fires spread throughout the island and how people had to be evacuated. Immediately, I called my family, and thankfully, they were safe.

Then I started calling my friends.

None of my phone calls or text messages were going through. Being over 2,000 miles away from home was emotionally draining. I felt helpless, and I truly wished I could have been home to comfort my grieving community.

While firefighters tried to contain the wildfires, I saw countless posts by friends on social media looking for missing loved ones and asking others to keep an eye out for any information about them. Wanting constant updates, I checked shelter websites for the names of residents who were found and were safe. I was restless, and no matter what I did, my mind was glued to thoughts about my community back home.

After a couple of days of not being able to reach my friends, I finally got in contact with a handful of them. Everyone lost their homes, many lost family members and even childhood pets. One of my childhood friends lost his 14-year-old brother, another old church friend lost her dad and uncle, and one of my best friends, a single mom, lost everything and had to move off the island to support her 4-year-old son.

My Associated Students of GCU team checked on me. They offered support and prayers. It comforted me knowing I had people to lean on when I felt most alone.

Marketing student Maria Rodriguez Pereira

The tragedies are endless.

Hearing such catastrophic stories from the people I care most about brought me emotional pain I never thought I would experience. One night, I cried on my bathroom floor for hours, hoping and praying this nightmare would be over.

The next day, I put on a brave face for yet another day of student leadership training. Luckily, I didn’t have to carry the burden of staying strong by myself.

My Associated Students of GCU team checked on me. They offered support and prayers. It comforted me knowing I had people to lean on when I felt most alone. I have fostered a close connection with my team, and it was so important to see we are not only there for each other during the good moments, but the tough ones, too.

In her student leader role as ASGCU community engagement director, Maria Rodriguez Pereira has helped bring together a team of students who host such events as Midnight Breakfast and The Riff Off. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

I’m entering my second year as an ASGCU leader, and I have made strong friendships with the team. This year, I am the community engagement director. I oversee two coordinators and host events such as Midnight Breakfast. I’ve always had a passion for planning events, and with this role, I am doing just that.

Recently, we hosted The Riff Off. We had an amazing turnout of over 1,000 people, a record-breaking number for that event from any year prior. The planning process was so much fun, and I hope to continue working in the event industry after graduation.

With the recent tragedy of Lahaina, my community of Maui is hurting. We have received tremendous help from individuals, organizations and even celebrities through donations and simply coming together for emotional support. The loss and trauma the Lahaina community experienced will never be forgotten, but having support from other communities gives us hope things will be OK. Experiencing that same support from my ASGCU family also helped me feel better. It is an ongoing road to long-term recovery, but with the help of a village, anything is possible.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Maria Rodriguez Pereira is a senior studying marketing and advertising and is scheduled to graduate in April. She is involved in ASGCU as the community engagement director and is a student worker at The Riverbed. Whenever she has downtime, she loves hanging out with friends, going to fitness classes and attending any GCU event. She wants to work in the event-planning industry or find a job in social media marketing.

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Bible Verse

(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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