GCU's Hawaii community honors Maui at vigil

Freshman Keenan Florentin connects with fellow students from Hawaii during the Candlelight Vigil for Maui on Wednesday on the south turf of the Student Advising Services Building.

Photos by Ralph Freso

After seeing the devastation of the ruthless wildfires that ripped through Maui, Keenan Florentin didn’t know if he had the heart to leave his home in Hawaii.

“It was really hard,” said the Grand Canyon University freshman film major who attended Wednesday evening’s candlelight vigil to honor Maui. “I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to come anymore (to college).”

Lahaina, which bore the brunt of the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since it became a state in 1959, is a second home to him; his family made many joyful family memories there.

“That day was really horrific,” Florentin said of Aug. 8, when the fires broke out. He felt sick that he couldn’t reach his girlfriend, who is from Lahaina. “I had no connection with her, no calling from her.”

But they eventually connected.

And Florentin eventually made his way to GCU just three weeks later, where he’s been swept up by the excitement of Welcome Week while still feeling that pull from home, much like the other students from Hawaii and their counselors. They took time out, in the midst of orientations, socials and celebrations, such as Silent Disco set to happen just a few steps away in GCU Arena, to remember friends and family at home.

The Hawaii community at GCU honors Maui at a gathering Wednesday on the south lawn of the Student Advising Services Building.

“The reason we wanted to do this is to just acknowledge what has happened on Maui and the impact that it’s had on our entire state and all of our GCU families,” said University Admissions Manager Tasha Short of the Candlelight Vigil for Maui, organized by GCU Admissions and GCU Hui Aloha, a Multicultural Office-affiliated group for students from Hawaii or those interested in its culture. “Welcome Week is obviously a very exciting and momentous occasion, but we still wanted to acknowledge those who are still grieving.

“We thought it best to gather as many people as possible, our Hawaii community here at GCU.”

And the Hawaii community responded.

Short didn’t know how many would show up to the vigil with so many Welcome Week events to attend and the constant buzz of activity. But so many did that they filled the south lawn of the Student Advising Services Building on the Promenade and filled the intimate space with a sense of Hawaii culture and community – a sense of “ohana” (“family”).

University admissions counselor Shayna Wago grew up in Maui and shared how the church where she was baptized in Lahaina was lost in the Maui wildfires.

Shayna Wago, one of the university admissions counselors for Oahu, was born and raised in Maui, and most of her family is from Lahaina.

“I grew up as a pastor’s kid. My dad got a position in the church. I was baptized in a church in Lahaina, grew up there; unfortunately, it perished in the fire,” she said as she addressed the crowd, her voice shaking. “But we continue to show up for each other.”

The tragedy there, whether it impacted students and their families directly or not, “It’s heavy in all of our hearts,” Wago said. “ … I encourage you guys, again, to make friends. You never know who has been impacted and how it’s going to affect them. But I continue to trust in God’s plan, and I hope that you guys do, as well.”

University admissions counselor Kristy Pang encouraged students to find support in each other.

Kristy Pang, a university admissions counselor representing Maui, Molokai and Lanai, couldn’t hold back the emotion as she addressed those at the vigil: “We are all affected,” she said, her voice breaking, but she encouraged students to “Look around. When you folks are feeling lost, confused, homesick, look around. This is the people. … We are here to support each other in a time of uncertainty. We left a home of uncertainty at this point. We all have lost, but yet we’re here.”

Pang, the parent this year of a GCU freshman, said of GCU, “I know that GCU is a place where he will be safe. He will have people that will take care of him here. We are here to malama (care/nurture/preserve) each other. … Here at GCU, kokua (show kindness/help) each other. Please take care of each other. Be kind to each other.”

“I don’t think any of us were expecting to get emotional tonight,” said Short to the crowd of Hawaii students, parents and friends who gathered for the solemn, intimate ceremony. “But just seeing all of you here, it really strikes a chord with us.”

University admissions counselor Cullen Mosher leads a group in prayer.

Cullen Mosher, university admissions counselor representing Oahu, led the “pule,” or prayer that started the ceremony, asking for God’s “continued protection for all of our students that have decided to join us and continue on their academic journey here.”

He led the songs “Ho’onani I Ka Makua Mau,” the doxology praise to God, and “Hawaii Aloha,” a song of unity expressing love for one’s home.

“Happy youth of Hawaii/ Rejoice! Rejoice!/ Gentle breezes blow/ Love always for Hawaii”

The crowd sang the lyrics in the native language of the islands. It was capped at the end by a cry of “chee-hoo!” from Pang, an expression of endearment and joy in Hawaii originating in the Samoan culture.

Those who gathered also turned on the lights of their cellphones to observe 115 seconds of silence, the current death toll at the time of the ceremony.

Attendees at the candlelight vigil observed 115 seconds of silence to represent those lost in the Maui wildfires natural disaster.

Makena Guzman, a sophomore business advertising and marketing major from Kihei, Maui, said after the ceremony that it was important for her to be at the vigil to honor her close friends and family that lost so much in the fires.

“They lost their homes. They lost even family members. Lahaina’s a place I grew up going to. Even though it’s on the other side of the island, we’d go there to surf or just holo holo (travel or cruise) in that area. Lahaina’s really historic, and there are parts of it that are very sacred to our culture.”

Guzman, who’s a member of GCU’s Hui Aloha, said her older brother traveled from Washington to help fellow firefighters in his home state who were exhausted from fighting the fires.

The GCU community honors Maui at a candlelight vigil as the sun sets on Wednesday.

“He was in the burn zone. He was able to help with finding people and recovering people that passed away.”

Florentin just a few weeks ago didn’t know if he wanted to come to college after all that’s happened, but in the end, he said, he took that first step back, as Maui is doing.

He looked around him at the candlelight vigil, at the parents, his fellow students and the university admissions counselors from Hawaii who welcomed him here: “I came to GCU with an open mind, especially to have all these people here who are from Hawaii. We can be miles away from Hawaii, but no matter what, Arizona, Oahu, these people? They make you feel like we’re home.”

GCU Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

***

Related content:

GCU News: GCU extends support to students affected by Maui fires

GCU News: Ho'olaule'a Luau

GCU News, Welcome Week: Welcome Crew is encouraging sign of year ahead; Students get moved in and plugged in to GCU life; Santa Cruz, Copper, other new additions make campus shine; New apartments provide refreshing routine for RAs; Lope Shop adjusts to new logo, greater demands for Welcome Week

GCU News, Welcome Week slideshows: Welcome Back at the CAC, Project L, First Day of Welcome Week

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