Neighbors: Come together in Haiku

It may no longer have a lawnmower race or the “pineapple scramble,” but the Haiku Hoolaulea and Flower Festival is still true to its “homespun” roots and unique Haiku flair, says organizer and co-founder Mike Gagne.

“I feel really good about the fact that it’s still going on, and that people who were kids at the first one are now chairpersons at the one we’re having in a week,” Gagne said this week from his Huelo workshop. “It’s gone way further than we could have imagined when we started.”

Gagne said the idea for having a community festival first came up after a meeting of the Haiku Community Association, when board member Ed Silverstein pointed out that other Maui towns held fairs and parades and suggested that Haiku should also have an event “that defined the community.”

At the time, the area’s flower-growing business was starting to bloom, and “we all kind of seized on that idea,” Gagne recalled.

The group had never staged an event before and made a lot of mistakes, but after about eight months of planning, the first celebration was held around 1995, he said, “much to our shock, surprise and amazement.”

In addition to the lawnmower race, in which a fast-running man with a push mower beat all the engine-powered riding lawnmowers; and the pineapple scramble (a race across a muddy pineapple field); the event included a rubber-boot race, flower competitions, crafters and entertainment. Proceeds were donated to the Haiku School Parents Teachers Association.

“The first event made $700,” Gagne said, “and that was only because we got a $1,000 grant from the county, otherwise we would have been in the hole.”

But the success of the event was dampened when Silverstein, who had worked closely with Gagne and other organizers to pull it off, died unexpectedly just a few months later. But Gagne said there was no doubt the event would continue.

“I wanted to do it again, to honor Ed,” he said. “Plus, it was really a lot of fun.”

Over the years there have been some changes. The lawnmower race turned out to be “one of those insurance nightmares,” said Gagne. And organizers eventually realized they had to get permits to stage the celebration at a public park. The program has grown and become more organized – this year, for the first time, an online system is being used to manage assignments and shifts for some 300 volunteers. Gagne says he sees part of his job as making sure the event stays true to its roots.

“It’s apparent to me that I’m now the old man of the festival,” says Gagne, who this year co-chairs the event with Haiku resident Jennifer Oberg.

It remains “uniquely Haiku,” inclusive of all comers, and “not too slick,” he says. This year, the hoolaulea will again include some of its signature events, including a flower arranging competition provided by the festival, in which participants can create designs using flowers donated by organizers; as well as a lei-making demonstration and workshop that allows participants to keep their lei. Other attractions include entertainment, food booths, keiki zone, crafters, bake sale, silent auction and historical display.

Gagne says the event has grown so successful that it’s had to turn away community groups that have asked to participate in the fundraiser – he says organizers are looking for ways they can expand to include more groups in the future.

And from the $700 it donated in its first year, the proceeds have grown so that “now it provides a large part of the PTA budget,” Gagne says. “That provides enrichment programs for the students. It’s become something we rely on.”

In addition to his work on the festival, Gagne, a woodworker and cabinetmaker, is president of the Haiku Community Association, is active with the newly formed Alliance of Community Associations, and served on the Haiku School Community Based Management Board for 15 years. He lives in Huelo with his wife, Pat, who is general manager of Paia’s Mana Foods.

Gagne says he picked up his inclination toward community service from his family. As the second oldest of many children, it was always his role to “take care of the younger ones.” Now, he says helping out and watching people come together to benefit the keiki is what he loves most about the Haiku Hoolaulea and Flower Festival.

“I really like how everyone cooperates, and people jump in where there’s a need,” he said. “It’s the energy of people doing something, and that attracts more people. I just love that. It makes the inside of my head feel like a snow globe. It’s magic.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor.

Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at neighbors.maui@gmail. com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.