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Go with the flow

Rotary Club of Volcano, Hawaii

Club members Bill Hamilton (left) and Carol Hamilton with District 5000 Assistant Governor Randy Hart.

In early May 2018, the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted, shooting lava 150 feet into the air. The lava pool in the volcano’s crater dropped 1,500 feet as it flowed out cracks that formed along Kilauea’s sides, the molten rivers consuming entire neighborhoods and creating new land forms as they reached the ocean. Earthquake after earthquake rattled the area — an estimated 60,000 over three months, as the crater collapsed inward and quadrupled in size. Plumes of ash billowed. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park shut down.

The Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele, had made her power known.

Members of the Rotary Club of Volcano lived through all of this: Their club met a five-minute hike from the crater’s edge.

A year later, they’re holding a breakfast meeting in the cafeteria of the Kilauea Military Camp, a quaint, century-old recreation spot for military families located in the national park. (The camp’s director, Randy Hart, is a member of the Rotary Club of Hilo.) It has been raining for days; between the fog and the steam, you can’t even see the other side of the caldera.

The community of Volcano is situated within a lush rainforest at 4,000 feet in elevation, 30 miles of winding road up from the coastal town of Hilo. The town’s main commercial strip is barely a mile long; B&Bs and restaurants are tucked away on side streets. “Without getting too spiritual, there really is something about the area,” says Michael A. Nelson, a member of the Rotary Club of Volcano and the executive director of the Volcano Art Center, who built his home in Volcano after a career in hotel and event management in Honolulu and in Hollywood, California.

The Volcano club was chartered in 2001, and most of its 14 members are retired veterans and other transplants. Though the setting is serene, the Rotarians are used to working hard. “Who moves to Hawaii to live at 4,000 feet?” observes Doug Adams, a visiting member of the Rotary Club of South Hilo. “Hearty people. People who understand this is a place to work. The club helps with everything. And they all get together. At the small clubs, they all show up.”

The eastern part of the island of Hawaii is the state’s poorest region, and Volcano Rotarians are hyper-focused on community service. They do a highway cleanup once a month. They read to schoolkids. They run a program that places American flags in people’s yards six times a year. They painted the firehouse — twice. “I’m on a couple of other boards,” says Paul Field, club president. “When they think about doing something, they say, ‘We can ask Rotary to help.’”

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

The club has informally adopted the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences charter school. “It’s probably the poorest school I’ve seen,” says Bill Hamilton, whose wife, Carol, is also a Rotarian. Club members help with repairs, donate books, and are constructing an outdoor classroom.

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is the state’s most visited tourist destination — the week before Kilauea erupted, the National Park Service released a report touting the park’s estimated $222 million in economic impact. So when the park closed for an unprecedented four months during and after the eruption, the entire community was affected. Restaurants and gift shops cut hours or closed completely. The Volcano Art Center, whose revenue is generated primarily by sales at a gallery within the national park, had to lay people off.

During that time, the club met at different restaurants to boost local businesses, and it’s helping support “Experience Volcano,” a longer-term plan to bring tourists back to the community. The club was also one of five in eastern Hawaii that came together to work on a project, led by the Rotary Club of Pahoa Sunset, to help relocate a school that was buried by lava.

As a small club in a small town, the Volcano Rotarians don’t hold traditional weekly meetings — there aren’t a lot of speakers around here, and members felt they were rehashing the same topics every week. Instead, they clean the highway one Thursday morning each month, and hold a breakfast meeting another. Most of them have their own pet projects, such as volunteering at the park, the art center, the school, or the community center. And, Bill Hamilton says, “we get together quite a bit. Whether or not we’re getting together for a true club meeting, we’re getting together at other people’s houses or at the military camp,” which is a social center of the community.

This flexibility also allowed them to shift this week’s meeting to Friday to accommodate a visitor, and Hamilton presents her with a lei made of nuts from the kukui, Hawaii’s state tree, painted with purple flowers. They observe the usual Rotary traditions — the bell, the Pledge of Allegiance, happy dollars, The Four-Way Test — but mostly they simply chat about Volcano and Rotary over a casual cafeteria breakfast.

As the meeting ends, Jane Field has one final thought for their visitor: “I know of a house for sale,” she says. “You would love it here.”


• This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.