There were no high school marching bands. No equestrian units. No parade floats decked out in red, white and blue. The Fourth of July looked a lot different this year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may have been an atypical holiday, but two Realtors Association of Maui (RAM) members helped make it extra special for Upcountry residents in need.

Kristine Musto of Coldwell Banker Island Properties and Claudia Garcia of Maui International Real Estate Services are next-door neighbors and the co-creators of #MakawaoSTRONG, a community-driven effort to feed the hungry and show love and support during this challenging time.

Garcia moved to Makawao nearly two decades ago and says it was love at first sight. “I’ve always loved living in communities that are strong and watch out for each other,” she said. Like Garcia, Musto feels deeply connected to the place she’s called home for more than 25 years. “This community has supported me and my family all these years,” she said. “So there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to give back to it.”

Garcia and Musto came up with the idea for #MakawaoSTRONG on one of their daily “quarantine walks” in early June. “Claudia shared a story of how she and Francis Kamakaokalani, another member of our [#MakawaoSTRONG] committee, had purchased supplies for a close family friend at Hale Mahaolu [Eha], the senior living complex in Makawao,” Musto recalled. “Together, we came up with the concept to help the kupuna there and others in Upcountry. We rallied the help of Francis and our other neighbor, Jen Wood.”

And that’s when #MakawaoSTRONG was born.

The group’s inaugural event was a concert-slash-food drive in Garcia and Musto’s cul-de-sac. Kamakaokalani and three other musicians performed a show that was simultaneously livestreamed on the #MakawaoSTRONG Facebook page. As the music played, donors dropped off non-perishable food and household items. In the weeks that followed, the #MakawaoSTRONG team collected more donations—everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to rice to paper towels—and delivered them to seniors at Hale Mahaolu Eha and other Upcountry residents.

Then, on July 4, #MakawaoSTRONG was invited to host a community food drive during the Virtual Makawao Stampede, which was held in lieu of the Makawao Stampede and annual Makawao Parade (both were canceled due to COVID-19). In addition to collecting non-perishable food and household items that day, Musto said, “An anonymous donor from the rodeo community had committed to give us $1,000 [and] the generous rodeo community matched this by donating an additional $1,000 in monetary and food donations.”

Musto and Garcia had a plan for the monetary donations: They would purchase items at Pukalani Superette to distribute to the food drive beneficiaries. “They do so much for our community, so we wanted to give back to them as well,” Musto explained. “They not only agreed to help, but offered to purchase all the goods at their costs, making no profit… and they donated an additional $500 to the cause.” Soon after, #MakawaoSTRONG and Pukalani Superette joined forces to create #UpcountrySTRONG, an effort now underway to collect monetary or non-perishable food donations for Upcountry residents; the donations will be distributed at a yet-to-be-determined date and location.

Musto and Garcia say they will continue to help as long as they are needed. “What started as a one-time event has turned into an ongoing effort,” Musto said.  “We intend to help see our Upcountry community through these tough times and won’t stop as long as we know there are people in need out there.”

And they hope #MakawaoSTRONG inspires others to follow suit. “Hopefully we can have not just #MakawaoSTRONG, but #PaiaSTRONG, #HaliimaileSTRONG, and #HaikuSTRONG,” Garcia said.

Musto agrees wholeheartedly. “These are unprecedented times with so much uncertainty,” she said. “The only certainty we do have is that we live in a very special place and together with the help of the community, we can do our best to make sure that no one goes hungry in our Upcountry community. We hope to see other agents take on the same mission in their communities so #MakawaoSTRONG turns into #MauiSTRONG.”

For more information about #MakawaoSTRONG or to inquire about donor opportunities, call Musto at 870-0553 or Garcia at 298-9257 or search Facebook for “Makawao Strong.” To contribute to #UpcountrySTRONG, stop by Pukalani Superette during business hours, donate via Zelle or email community@pukalanisuperette.com.

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