Red Cross honors Kula woman as Maui volunteer of the year

When disaster strikes, Merry Tamashiro is always ’right there to help’

Merry Tamashiro

When an earthquake rocked Hawaii island and East Maui on Oct. 15, 2006, emergency officials instructed people to stay indoors. Kula resident Merry Tamashiro couldn’t stand it.

“I wanted to go out and help, but I couldn’t,” she said. “I prefer to be outside in the action (rather) than sitting inside my house doing nothing.”

That’s what inspired Tamashiro to join the Maui County branch of the Red Cross around 2008. For a decade she’s been doing what she loves — responding to the action, coming to people’s aid — and for that the organization has recognized her as the 2018 Maui Red Cross Volunteer of the Year.

“She’s one of those people that if there’s a storm approaching, if she sees smoke off in the distance, whatever it is, she’s right there to help,” said Michele Liberty, Maui County director for the American Red Cross of Hawaii. “She’s the first to be out and be active as our logistics lead, and then when her day is done, she still goes around . . . and visits other shelter locations to make sure that everybody’s OK. . . . And nobody asks her to do any of that. She just does.”

Tamashiro is often Liberty’s first call after a disaster. As logistics lead for the county, Tamashiro oversees the supplies for all three islands, which means she has to be first on the scene. She’s used to making supplies stretch and working with whatever size team she’s given.

Merry Tamashiro (third from left, seated) poses with Red Cross volunteers outside War Memorial Gym in July 2016, when a 5,000-acre brush fire in Maalaea sent hundreds of stranded residents and visitors to the temporary shelter at the gym. Tamashiro, the logistics lead for Maui County, has been named the 2018 Maui Red Cross Volunteer of the Year. Photo courtesy of Michele Liberty

In July 2016, a nearly 5,000-acre brush fire in Maalaea stranded residents and tourists on either side of the pali while firefighters battled the blaze. Buses brought more than 450 people to the War Memorial Gym. Tamashiro and five other volunteers oversaw the temporary shelter, registering people from 5 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. the next day. There were so many people that the Red Cross had to reach out to the Maui County Emergency Management Agency for more cots. The Maui Visitors Bureau sent in blow-up mattresses and Mylar blankets, while the Maui Food Bank brought in snacks.

“It was a really awesome experience because the people were so appreciative that it really warms your heart when you can help them out,” Tamashiro said.

Even with such a small team, “we make the best of it,” she added. “You just try to lighten the mood and make sure everybody feels safe and comfortable.”

At times, Tamashiro has gotten pulled out of bed to respond to disasters. She monitors the weather reports, and when things look rough, she loads a truck with supplies ahead of time and waits.

“Mother nature doesn’t sleep,” Tamashiro said, adding that she had just gotten back from vacation two weeks ago when she and other volunteers were put on standby during a major storm and flooding in Central Maui.

Originally from Oahu, Tamashiro came to Maui in the early 1980s to attend Maui Community College (now University of Hawaii Maui College) and ended up staying. She worked as a heavy equipment operator for eight years until an injury forced her to pursue another career. From 1994 to 2016, she ran her own tour and activities reservation business, Personal Touch Answering Service. But Tamashiro put that aside when it became too hard to balance work and caring for her aging mother.

Her mother, Karen Tamashiro, suffered from dementia and cancer and passed away in July. Merry Tamashiro credits her mother with instilling an attitude of hard work and helpfulness in her three daughters. “Busy hands are happy hands” was her motto.

“Like my mom taught us, you help the next person,” Tamashiro said. “Because if we no help them, who’s going to help them? . . . I think we all believe in helping the next person. Just sometimes you need a little boost.”

The attitude runs in the family — Merry Tamashiro’s older sister, Pat Tamashiro, is a Red Cross volunteer on Molokai.

According to Liberty, Maui County has about 140 active volunteers, though Tamashiro said the Red Cross can always use more. Most classes and paperwork can be completed online, and the organization meets once a month.

“It’s so important that we take care of our own,” Tamashiro said. “You can be out there doing something (during a disaster) and not sit around stressing.”

She added that the Red Cross is also looking for new storage spaces that it can access any time of the day. The organization has storage places in Wailuku and Lahaina, though Tamashiro said she can’t order new supplies because there isn’t enough space to store them.

March has been recognized as Red Cross Month for more than 70 years, which is why volunteers are now being recognized around the country. On March 24, Tamashiro will be honored at a Maui Heroes Luncheon at the college. The Red Cross will also be holding a 24-hour fundraising campaign on March 28 (visit for more information or text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10).

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at