Nearly one month after the Aug. 8 fires that decimated Lāhainā Town and destroyed 19 homes in Kula, celebrities with ties to Hawaiʻi created the People’s Fund of Maui to provide financial aid to residents who were displaced by the disaster.
Maui resident Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has Polynesian roots and spent much of his childhood in Hawaiʻi, announced the launch of this fund on Aug. 31 and pledged to contribute $10 million between the two of them.
Funds will be distributed to every adult “who is not able to live in their primary residence due to the wildfires in Lāhainā and Kula,” according to the People’s Fund of Maui website. Homeowners and renters are eligible; property owners who were not living in their residence are not eligible.
Each individual who is approved for the grant will receive $1,200 every 30 days for at least the next six months, as stated by Winfrey in an announcement video, but ideally for as long as the funds are needed and remain available.
According to the fund’s website, these are considered “qualified disaster relief payments,” which are meant to be used for reasonable and necessary expenses like:
- Personal, family, living or funeral expenses incurred as a result of a qualified disaster
- Repair or rehabilitation of a personal residence due to a qualified disaster
- Repair and replacement of the contents of a personal residence due to a qualified declared disaster
Though this financial aid does not need to be reported on recipients’ taxes, they may affect eligibility for other public benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income or SNAP, according to the organization’s website.
This is currently the only fund that has promised to provide long-term financial assistance to impacted individuals. Other forms of direct aid — such as the $700 from FEMA per household; $1,000 grant for individuals from Maui United Way; or funds given to affected families by ‘Āina Momona — have all been one-time donations.
“I have been meeting with people throughout the community that were impacted by the fires over the last few weeks, asking what they most needed and how I could be of service,” Winfrey said in an Aug. 31 press release. “The main thing I’ve been hearing is their concern about how to move forward under the immense financial burden.”
Before launching the fund, Winfrey and Johnson consulted kūpuna, community leaders and residents, including Hōkūlani Holt-Padilla, Kealiʻi Reichel, Archie Kalepa, Ekolu Lindsey, Tiare Lawrence and Jason Momoa, according to the news release.
“These leaders are offering their guidance to ensure our fund can put money directly in the hands of those individuals most affected,” Johnson said in the press release. “To all who have already offered your help, thank you for your support and for those wanting to help now, your prayers and resources are a welcome assistance for those displaced within the Maui community.”
This call for the public’s help is where the controversy comes into play. In a collaborative social media video posted by Winfrey and Johnson, the celebrity duo directed viewers to donate to the People’s Fund of Maui, which has garnered more than $768,000 as of Sept. 4.
Out of more than 100,000 comments across Instagram and TikTok, a vast majority highlighted the irony of Winfrey and Johnson — who have a net worth of $2.5 billion and $800 million, respectively — asking the public to fund their newly established nonprofit.
“Only $10 million?! If you’re each donating half, or $5 million each, then Oprah is donating 0.2% of her wealth. The Rock [is] donating 0.6% of his wealth,” said TikTok user @seegidgerun.
To put this in perspective, considering the median American household income for 2021 — which the U.S. Census Bureau reported as being just over $70,000 — a donation equivalent to those percentages would be approximately $140 for Winfrey and $420 for Johnson, respectively.
Instagram user @sincerely.cece wrote, “Girl you got some nerve asking us working class people who can barely afford to put food on the table for our families to donate… Why don’t you ask your millionaire/billionaire buddies to help.”
Other users revisited the recent backlash over Winfrey’s acquisition of more than 1,000 acres of land on Maui, and her subsequent blocking of residents from using a road that would connect Kīhei to Upcountry.
But not all of the feedback has been negative. Instagram user @albimaui commented on an Aug. 31 post by Tiare Lawrence saying, “It’s crazy how all this negativity is mostly posted by people who aren’t from here. It’s not Oprah or The Rock’s responsibility to fix everything. We locals are blessed that they are stepping up at all!”
Impacted individuals can apply for direct assistance by filling out this online form. A photo ID as well as a utility bill or bank statement are required for proof of residence.
Funds will be directly deposited into recipients’ bank accounts. The timeline of when funds will be distributed has not been disclosed as of publication.
Residents who don’t have a bank account or need assistance completing the form can call 808-427-7777.
Those seeking a way to financially support impacted individuals can make a donation to the People’s Fund of Maui online, with options to give once or monthly. Alternatively, donations can be given directly to families who have set up fundraisers on GoFundMe or payment apps like Venmo.