Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson have pledged $10 million to provide direct financial assistance to Maui residents who can't return to their homes due to wildfires, via a new fund they unveiled on Thursday.
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The People's Fund of Maui will distribute $1,200 monthly to adults unable to return to their main homes due to the recent wildfires. This includes homeowners and renters, as per the fund's website. The fund will also solicit donations to prolong its support duration.
“How can we assist?" the “Young Rock” actor and Winfrey questioned each other during the wildfires. In a video released with the announcement, they discussed their struggle to determine the best way to help. “You want to address the people's most pressing need, which is money," they said.
They eagerly await the assistance of “every individual who contacted me and asked, ‘What can I do?’” Winfrey stated in the video. “This is what you can do.”
The duo drew inspiration from a similar fund established by Dolly Parton following the Gatlinburg, Tennessee wildfires in December 2016, which claimed 14 lives and destroyed 2,400 structures.
Jeff Conyers, president of The Dollywood Foundation, consulted with Winfrey's team several times in recent weeks to impart the knowledge they gained from managing the fund, which ultimately awarded $11 million to families who lost their homes.
“Dolly’s concept was, ‘Hey, these are my people and I want to look after them. We trust them to know what recovery means for them and their families in the aftermath of this immediate disaster,’” Conyers stated.
Parton's fund, named My People Fund, collaborated with first responders and a local utility company, and asked residents to help identify which structures were destroyed and who resided in those homes, Conyers explained. Approximately 1,000 families eventually received aid from the fund, according to an assessment from the University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Social Work. This included a final $5,000 lump sum payment after six months.
To be eligible for the People's Fund of Maui, applicants must present a government ID and a utility bill in their name for a lost or uninhabitable home, according to the fund’s website.
Winfrey, a part-time Maui resident, visited an emergency shelter on Maui in the aftermath of the wildfire and expressed concern about effectively distributing resources to residents. The fires claimed at least 115 lives, with an unknown number still missing. The fire that devastated the historic town of Lahaina on Aug. 8 was the deadliest in the U.S. in over a hundred years.
On Wednesday, forecasters warned that strong winds and low humidity could exacerbate the risk of fires spreading rapidly in the western regions of each Hawaiian island, although these winds were not as potent as those that fueled the lethal blaze three weeks prior.
In the announcement, Winfrey and Johnson revealed they sought advice from “community elders, leaders and residents including Hōkūlani Holt-Padilla, Keali’i Reichel, Archie Kalepa, Ekolu Lindsey, Kimo Falconer, Tiare Lawrence, Kaimana Brummel, Kaleikoa Ka’eo, Brian Keaulana, Kaimi Kaneholani, Henohea Kāne, Paele Kiakona, Ed Suwanjindar, Shep Gordon and Jason Momoa.”
The Entertainment Industry Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that aids celebrities in managing their charitable endeavors, is sponsoring the fund, according to the announcement.
Johnson and Winfrey hope the fund will continue to provide financial aid to eligible residents for at least six months. However, Winfrey stated that the duration of the fund's extension would depend on the American public's support and donations.
When establishing a direct cash transfer program, it's crucial to outline the goal, said Holly Welcome Radice, the regional representative for the Americas at CALP Network, a group of organizations that research cash assistance programs. In this case, $1,200 should match the cost of housing or living expenses for an adult in the area, or whatever need the fund aims to address, she explained.
“The goal will be challenging to achieve if your transfer value doesn't align with the people's reality,” she said, suggesting the fund should consider if the local economy can handle the influx of money and identify what other services people might require.
“If it's feasible and appropriate, then cash is a very direct way for people to benefit and have agency,” Radice said.
She also advised the fund to clearly communicate the program's parameters "so people understand who qualifies and why they qualify and ensuring there is some type of feedback mechanism where people can lodge complaints.”
This story was initially published on August 31, 2023. It was updated on September 1, 2023, to correct the name of the nonprofit overseeing the People’s Fund of Maui. It is the Entertainment Industry Foundation, not the Entertainment Industry Fund.
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