Maui group returns home after delivering ‘lei of aloha’ to Uvalde
Panzo: ‘We always say we hope we never have to do this again’
When Ron Panzo arrived in Uvalde, Texas, something about it reminded him of Maui.
In the small town filled with close-knit families, it seemed like everyone was a cousin or a friend left reeling by the devastating mass shooting that killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers nearly two weeks prior.
“We all felt the same thing, there was such a connection there,” said Panzo, who returned from Texas this week after helping deliver a mile-long ti leaf lei to Uvalde. “It was almost like being back in Maui.”
Lei of Aloha for World Peace, co-founded by Panzo, has taken up a tradition of weaving mile-long lei to gift to communities struck by tragedy. They’ve carried strands to Paris, Parkland, Orlando, Las Vegas and Christchurch, New Zealand in the wake of mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Sadly, “there’s so many of these, you can’t react to every one,” Panzo said.
But when he saw the news about the children killed in the Robb Elementary School classrooms in Uvalde, “there was no question. We had to reach out to this other community.”
Volunteers spent three and a half, 12-hour days putting together a nearly 400-pound, mile-long ti leaf lei at Nalu’s South Shore Grill that Panzo runs in Kihei. Another half-mile was completed in Honolulu by Light of the World Ministry.
A group of 10 delegates from Hawaii made their way to Uvalde, including six from Maui — Panzo, kumu and cultural practitioner Vene Chun, musicians Anthony Pfluke and Ethan Villanueva and educators Vanessa Valencia and Elizabeth Fellows. From Oahu, Light of the World Ministry’s Colleen Nomura, hula dancers Crystale and Alohalani Cayaban and Sister Celeste Cabral from the Benedictine Monastery of Hawaii also came along.
Panzo remembers how they all felt approaching the Robb Elementary campus for the first time.
“We were in tears. Every single member of the delegation, we just stood there and everybody wept for awhile,” he said. “The feeling of sadness was definitely intense there. Just to look at the school, and you cannot imagine what was happening there just the week before.”
Panzo said people were coming from all over Texas and the world to pray together at the small campus.
“Once you went through the first phase of how sad it felt and seeing everybody coming together, there was this presence of healing and fellowship,” Panzo said. “There’s a lot of people out there that really care about other people.”
On the morning of June 4, the Hawaii group gathered the lei and prepared to hold a small blessing at a makeshift memorial of crosses, candles and flowers around a fountain in the town’s plaza. Before they knew it, they were surrounded by a circle of curious onlookers, including aunties, uncles and grandparents of some of the young victims, including Eliahna Garcia, who would’ve turned 10 years old on the day of the lei presentation.
“It was her 10th birthday, and the next day was her funeral,” Panzo said. “They came up to us and they thanked us. It just felt like we were around local people. They thanked us and the embrace — you could just feel the hurt and the pain.”
The group held a blessing, played some music and danced hula for the community members gathered in the 100-degree heat. When they were done, “everybody just bombarded us” asking for some of the extra ti leaf lei the group had brought from Hawaii, Panzo said. They stayed longer in the plaza, offering hugs and teaching people to weave the ti leaves.
Panzo was grateful for the connections they made with the small community in spite of such tragedy.
“You know we always say we hope we never have to do this again,” he said. “And everybody feels that way. But at the same time, we feel that after we’ve completed delivering the lei and the next day when we’re all together, everybody feels that we were there and we made a statement reaching out to a community that’s 2,000 miles away.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.