The Road to Recovery in Puna

Eileen OHara, Ava Libel and Page Else Malama-o-Puna
Puna Strong grantees gather in Pāhoa

For the Puna community affected by the recent Kīlauea eruptions, some of the most meaningful recovery efforts have come from grassroots organizing.

Amid all the losses and challenges that stemmed from the 2018 Kīlauea eruption, including the destruction of more than 700 homes, food scarcity, road closures, and evacuations, Puna residents may have been surprised to see new life emerging from the chaos—in the form of fruit trees and vegetables.

This thriving flora was part of a range of food security initiatives launched by local nonprofit Mālama o Puna, including the development of urban gardens, a seed exchange, and community fruit orchard, made possible by Puna Strong, a grants program utilizing innovative grassroots techniques to provide solutions for Hawaiʻi Island communities hit hard by the destructive lava flow.

The program was created through a partnership between the County of Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF), with the goal of assisting local organizations with disaster readiness and community resilience, two key strategies identified in the County’s Kīlauea Recovery and Resilience Plan.

Through $250,000 from the County’s recovery funds, as well as $130,000 from HCF’s Hawai‘i Island Volcano Recovery Fund, Hawai‘i Island Strong Fund, and Anderson-Beck Fund, HCF was able to award funds to 26 grantees working towards a broad spectrum of goals in Puna that include providing mental health services, distributing food to local residents, and providing tutoring for houseless children.

The key to Puna Strong’s success: Using trust-based philanthropy, a grantmaking approach that builds relationships with nonprofits based on mutual learning, creates open dialogue with grantees, and streamlines the application process, to ensure that funding is distributed in a way that addresses the real needs of the community.

“Instead of experts coming in from outside, it’s more about asking community members what they need, and figuring out how we can help them make that happen,” says Diane Chadwick, HCF director of community philanthropy for Hawai‘i Island.

Puna Strong funds also went toward capacity building, which helps make nonprofits and other grassroots organizations better able to assist and protect their community in the long-term. For example, Puna Strong grantees were invited to self-identify what resilience looks like for them. Their responses and priorities were often unique compared to nonprofits in other areas; methodologies even varied from different organizations within Puna Strong.

For Eileen O’Hara of Mālama o Puna, which is committed to ecosystem preservation and community education on Hawai‘i Island, Puna Strong represented an opportunity to launch its food security initiatives.

O’Hara hosted permaculture demonstrations for local families and equipped households with raised metal gardening beds to farm their own fruits and vegetables. Mālama o Puna provided not only seeds and tools, but knowledge on how to protect gardens against invasive species, such as little fire ants and rat lungworm.

At the Hawaiian Shores subdivision of Pāhoa, Mālama O Puna and 25 volunteers dug up a small portion of an unused 3.5 acre park and planted 51 fruit trees, complete with an irrigation system, over the course of two weeks. “We also planted around 50 pineapples. That wasn’t part of the process, but we did it anyway,” says O’Hara.

“We’re trying to work with people that have like-intent,” O’Hara says. “It’s capacity building for this entire community, whether that means planting trees, putting in roads, water systems, slaughterhouses; whatever it takes to make Puna more sustainable.”

To learn more about the Puna Strong Fund, visit