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Apr 23, 2018

Lei of Aloha

Saturday. November 14, 2015. Kihei, Maui. Ron Panzo stands silently in his restaurant.

He's just heard the news about a tragedy in Paris that claimed the lives of 148 people. He felt compelled to do something. In the wake of this dark moment, he yearned to send a little bit of aloha to people who were hurting more than 7,000 miles away. The next morning, with the help of two friends, they decided to do the unthinkable: they wanted to create a mile-long lei and send it to the people of Paris. Meant to be a solemn gesture of aloha, the call for volunteers went out across social media. In the ensuing three and-a-half days, more than 200 volunteers— equipped with 14 truck loads of ti—came together to make the unthinkable become a reality. Following the tragedy in Paris, the Lei of Aloha team, as Ron's group has come to be known, have closely orchestrated an ever-growing community of volunteers from across the islands to weave miles upon miles of lei for victims and communities of tragedy. Recently, we caught up with Ron to learn more about how he's strengthened his community and spread our state's greatest value, our sense of aloha, to the people who need it most.

How did it feel to see such a strong turnout for the initial lei you organized for the victims of the tragedy in Paris?

It was inspiring to say the least. Over three-and-a-half days, we had more than 200 volunteers show up to help. We had these volunteers working hard to do something important, so we did what we always do in Hawai'i: we made beef stew for everyone! Local style, ya know. It was just super impressive to see all these volunteers come out. We saw the same people every day. We even had two ladies who flew in from Kaua'i. They asked if it was okay if they helped and they started weaving these very special ti from a valley on the Garden Island. It was just so overwhelming to see that much aloha. There were no committees, no meetings, just a pure organic sense of aloha from the heart.

I understand that your group sent a delegation to deliver the lei to Paris.

We were actually ready to UPS it to Paris, but after some local media outlets picked up our story, the Hawai'i Tourism Authority asked if they could help. Then United Airlines called and said they'd also like to help and offered us eight seats so we could hand-deliver it. So we packed the lei in 1/8-mile-long increments and hand-delivered it to Paris.

It must be quite an experience to be involved in delivering the lei.

It really is. During the second lei we delivered, in response to the Pulse nightclub, we were on the runway waiting to take off to fly to Florida. Sometimes, you wonder if all this work really makes a difference. But while we were on the runway waiting to take off, the pilot came over the intercom and explained the situation in detail. Who our group was, what we were doing, and how we were really just aiming to send some aloha to people of this tragedy. The whole plane applauded for us and that moment really reminded me how important it is to be a positive force for people. Aloha is important.

Can you tell me about that specific lei?

We have a restaurant in Kihei and we have a strong LGBT community that supports us. I saw the headlines about the shooting and was in touch with a leader of the community and we decided to do another lei. This time, we had 300 people show up and we finished a one-mile-long lei in two-and-a-half days. We adorned each lei in 49 Cowrie Shells, one for each victim. When we delivered it, people really responded with a lot of emotion. There was a large Hawai'i contingency who met us there. People understood that this is what aloha is all about. And this is why people love Hawai'i. Because Hawai'i knows how to love.

I understand that you and your team also organized a lei for Hōkūleʻa's homecoming at Magic Island?

Yes, we did. It was a very special lei and we wanted to greet the crew and the Hōkūleʻa with it when they returned to Magic Island. But we didn't really have anything set up. We just wanted to show them our aloha. Somehow, Nainoa Thompson found out about this massive mile-long lei from some people on Maui and he was really excited. So much so that they adorned the Hōkūleʻa with the lei.

Can you discuss the latest lei you created with help from students across the state?

The latest lei, which was weaved in response to Parkland, included student volunteers from all over the state. We had over 2,000 students volunteer help us for this project. The lei weighed in at almost 1,000 lbs. and was more than three miles long. The kids really embraced it. We came to Honolulu and worked with Roosevelt. This project started so small and turned into something so impressive. We have so much love here in Hawai'i. Students from all over the islands sent in lei and when it was completed, we all gathered at the rotunda in the capital in Honolulu and did a blessing. Then we put it all in containers and flew it to Florida. We had our students and principal work with the eight city officials and the mayor to present the lei. It's now hanging on their fence at the school.

Does it ever weigh heavy on you?

It does, but I'm constantly reminded that we live in an awesome state and there are so many people who want to do good. The good outweighs the bad. The light outshines the dark. Here's a perfect example: When we were in Florida most recently, with all of the students, I went into K-Mart to buy 300 zip-ties to adhere the lei to the memorial. I came out of the store and the first thing I see is all of our kids dancing hula and playing music in the parking lot. All these people pulled over and came out to watch. It was full-on aloha.

What's been your biggest takeaway from working on all of these lei?

It's that We Are One. That's our mission statement. It's that aloha helps. But aloha cuts both ways, you know? It blesses the people that are receiving it, but I think it also blesses the people that are giving it. That's the magic. We're just a bunch of average, everyday citizens, trying to spread some aloha.

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