Anne Graybosch was used to seeing the crowds. Tens of thousands of vacationers, some days, would fly into Kahului airport on the island of Maui and make their way to the beach resort communities of Kaanapali, Lahaina, Kapalua and Napili.
When COVID-19 shut down air travel, the tourists disappeared, almost overnight. And so did the jobs.
Unemployment in the Maui metro area in Hawaii was at 33.4 percent in May, the highest for any metropolitan area in the country, according to a newly-released analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Lahaina community within Maui metro, where Graybosch has been a Starbucks store manager for 11 years, unemployment was even higher – 54.4 percent in May.
“These are multigenerational families that have been working in hotels and tourism support, families that have been working there for 20, 30 years,” Graybosch says. “For them to all lose their income… a lot of people are hurting.”
In early April, she had a conversation with Pastor Jay Wright of Lahaina Baptist Church, which was distributing food to a suddenly-reeling community through a partnership with the Maui Food Bank. She brought coffee to the volunteers one morning and saw a huge line of cars waiting, and felt the call to help.
“This is my community. I live in this community. I work in this community. My kid grew up in this community,” says Graybosch, who took “a leap of faith” and moved to Maui from Chicago in 2006. “Somebody has to step up and do something. So we did.”
Every week since then, she’s wrangled together a few store partners and customers to go to the church on Wednesdays to help pack boxes with donated goods and groceries. On Thursdays, they come back and help load up the cars that drive through for food. On those mornings, she also feeds volunteers beforehand with Starbucks coffee, sandwiches and pastries.
Graybosch estimates about 500 to 600 families come by every week, nine cars at a time driving up to nine different stations now to adhere to social distancing regulations. No one gets out of their cars and masks and gloves are worn at all times. The Maui Police Department helps with traffic control.
“Every week, we’re amazed at how it comes together,” Graysboch says. “Every week, we somehow pull it off.”
She had a lot of fear at first. Her husband is disabled and high-risk for COVID infection. And her store was one of the first to close, and it stayed shut for “seven long weeks,” she says. But she learned the facts and the science, took every precaution and followed every recommendation. And she feels being “transparent with my (store) team during those uncertain and scary times led to an even deeper bond between us.”
Graybosch and other stores in Maui also ran a three-week long food drive, where customers brought cookies and food items to donate to the cause.
She’s proud of how her neighbors have come together to help, including some long-time customers she’d recognized but hadn’t talked to much before. One of them, a local 5th grade teacher named Jennifer Deatrick, heard about the food distribution on social media and has come for the last nine weeks with her teenage son Sylas to pack food and greet the cars and families that drive by. Deatrick says she was inspired to start helping in part because of the sense of community she felt Graybosch created in her store.
“There’s definitely a lot of emotions, the unemployment is pretty devastating,” Deatrick says. “But we’re all family out here. It’s emotional because you see the lines, the hundreds of people waiting, an hour before we get started. I see my (students’) parents, I see my students. It’s awesome to be able to be a part of helping each other out.”
Recently, Graybosch received some good news. She’d nominated the Maui Food Bank for a Neighborhood Grant offered by The Starbucks Foundation. Right before a volunteer shift, she told them they’d been awarded $2,500.
“This is a middle-class community. These people are not people that have not ever had to ask for food. It’s hard for them,” Graybosch says. “But we’re all in this together. It’s easy to show up and be human, if you’re given the chance to do that. There’s no shame in it. No one asked for COVID, for the whole world to be turned upside down.
-- by Michael Ko