The smell of homemade laulau wafted through the air on Saturday as local music group Gilbert and Friends serenaded the crowd with their acoustic rendition of Cat Stevens’s “Where Do The Children Play?”
As the song ended, family and friends leaned on each other. Melodious echoes boomed through the microphone: “Save Lahaina.”
Ron Panzo, owner of Nalu’s South Shore Grill in Kīhei, said his restaurant had been packed all day with people attending the Lahaina Keiki Relief Fund Concert — many of whom wore newly purchased T-shirts that said “Maui Strong” and “All Hawaiʻi Stand Together.”
From 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., more than 300 people came to support community members, and especially the children, whose lives have been devastated by Maui’s fires.
The benefit, sponsored by Naluʻs and the Azeka Shopping Center, raised nearly $40,000, with all of it going to the Lahaina Keiki Relief Fund.
Panzo founded the fund to provide food, clothing and school supplies to children affected by the fires that destroyed homes in Lahaina and Kula.
In just a couple of days, Panzo curated a line-up of 11 local and national musical groups and accumulated artwork from local artists for a silent auction. Panzo said getting musicians to participate was easy. They were “eager to volunteer their time right now.”
“Anytime somebody calls us for a benefit concert, we’ll show up. Especially when it is something as big and important as what Ron’s doing here tonight,” said ʻukulele virtuoso Andrew Molina who performed with Jay Molina.
Other musicians and bands that performed for free: Anthony Pfluke, Sista Robi, Ron Kualaau, Kawika Ortiz, Rama Camarillo & ʻOhana, Tarvin Makia, Leilani’s 5, Brother Noland and Kalae and Tarvin.
When Panzo was asked what moved him to organize this event so quickly, he said: “The biggest compliment I get from customers is that this is more of a community center than it is a restaurant. Yes, we are all just devastated by what’s going on. But we are one big family, and we need to support those affected in every way we can.”
For years, Panzo has been a source of light in times of darkness. In the wake of the 2023 Nashville, Tenn., and 2018 Parkland, Fla. school shootings, Panzo was the main organizer of the mile-long “Lei of Aloha for World Peace.” As president of Street Bikers United Hawai’i, he also hosts Toys for Tots and Tools for Schools drives annually, among other charity events.
So when Panzo, who was on the mainland, learned that fires had destroyed much of Lahaina, he remotely organized a volunteer staff to prepare and deliver more than 500 meals the next day to survivors.
“By the time we got there, people were telling us it was the first thing they had eaten in over 24 hours,” Panzo said. “I even got a letter from a tourist from Dallas saying how much our food meant to him.”
Panzo said the outpouring of gratitude and Aloha from the community is what motivated him to organize the Lahaina Keiki Relief Fund, which has raised upwards of $75,000 in five days with local and national support.
Elizabeth Sirois, who helped man the event’s donation table with Panzo’s wife, Sandy, said she knew the second Panzo announced the fundraiser that it would be special.
“Ron and his wife, Sandy, come from the heart all the time,” she said. “That’s why this is my favorite place. We come here all the time; we know the people who work here. We are a family at Nalu’s and feeling that family-like support at a time like this is what we all need.”
Deborah Pozin, a regular at Nalu’s, echoed Sirois’ and many other attendees’ sentiments. She described how heartwarming it was to see people laughing, dancing and enjoying themselves for the first time after nearly two weeks of heartbreak.
“Everybody’s grieving in their own way, including me,” Pozin said. “I know this event is for Keiki, but in some ways, it feels like it’s for all of us. Coming out to just do something that has a good, happy vibe is something we all needed.”
The concert’s success has pushed Panzo to organize similar community fundraisers down the line, recognizing that this tragedy “will not go away overnight,” and requires sustained community support.
“For us to already have raised so much in just three or four days is proof of our family,” Panzo said. “It’s really something else to witness everyone coming together during the darkest of times to be there for one another. The love and aloha here is overwhelming. It really is.”