Building Unity in the Fight Against Hunger

Debbie Arakaki: 2023 Good Neighbor Award Winner

REALTOR® Debbie Arakaki has rallied the real estate community to combat food insecurity in Maui, and now is leading fire relief efforts.

Debbie Arakaki

Today, Lahaina, Hawaii, is widely known as a community picking up the pieces from August’s devastating wildfires. But long before that tragedy struck, Lahaina and the island of Maui were wrestling with a more entrenched problem: food insecurity.

Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the U.S., with food costs 61% higher than those in the rest of the nation, according to the Hawaii State Department of Health. In Maui County alone, nearly 11% of the population faces food insecurity, according to Feeding America. Examples are in plain sight—especially during the pandemic, when a 4-mile-long line of people formed at a food distribution center.

Luckily, there’s a REALTOR® on the scene helping to fill the gap for Maui residents who struggle with hunger and those who are reeling after the fire.   

In 2015, Debbie Arakaki, a broker with Compass Real Estate in Lahaina, first learned about the Maui Food Bank’s Aloha Backpack Buddies program, which provides healthy weekend meals to children from food-insecure homes. She liked that the program handed out the food discreetly in backpacks the kids could take with them after school. “It tugged at my heart that children go hungry,” Arakaki says. She tapped the real estate community for help, turning a broker caravan to view luxury real estate listings into a request for donations. With another real estate company and an escrow agent, Arakaki raised $7,000.

Now, the Fall Food Drive is a yearly event featuring broker caravans and virtual and in-person events to support the Maui Food Bank, a nonprofit that collects, warehouses and distributes food to about 177 agencies in Maui County. Since its launch, her fundraising efforts have translated to 1.05 million meals.

“With a supportive community that has given me a nurturing place to live, I feel it is my turn to give back.” – Debbie Arakaki, broker, Compass

Arakaki is quick to say she hasn’t done it alone. The real estate community has multiplied her efforts. “I believe people inherently want to help,” she says. “Sometimes they just need direction on how and where.” That help can take multiple forms: raising funds, finding matching grants, assembling volunteers to stock shelves at the food bank, and supporting others’ fundraising causes. 

Even though Arakaki may not see the people she serves directly, she hears the stories of the difference she makes. For example, a local high school’s after-school counseling program doubled in numbers after food-insecure teens learned the Maui Food Bank would be providing food each week.

Making Each Dollar Count

“Debbie is one of our most consistent fundraisers,” says Marlene Rice, director of the Maui Food Bank. “If we ever need anything, we can call her. She’s always asking if there’s anything she can do to help.”

When the food bank needed a new refrigerated truck to transport fresh food to agency partners, Arakaki helped raise funds for it. Another year, Arakaki raised donations and assembled food bags for the Aloha Backpack Buddies program for three school districts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the 10,000 meals served per month served jumped to 50,000, she organized virtual fundraising drives.

Inspiring Others

“Debbie draws from her realm of influence, tapping into the local community of agents, title and escrow officers, lenders, home inspectors and more,” says Joel Navarro, Ho’okele Title & Escrow executive vice president, who teams with Arakaki for fundraising events. “She created a sense of urgency in her sphere to make us understand the value of the Maui Food Bank.”

Arakaki, a real estate professional for 17 years who also spent 20 years in the restaurant business, has a large sphere to pull from—which was evident during her Fall Food Drive in 2022, when about 50 community volunteers pitched in to help.

About a month before the event, the location fell through, leaving Arakaki scrambling to relocate it to a palm tree farm. “Everyone really stepped up to the plate,” she says. Colleagues, neighbors, school district members and even the high school wrestling team worked on a variety of tasks, such as landscaping, stringing lights on palm trees, setting up tents, and building a stage for a local musician to play a ukulele. Arakaki’s neighbors offered up their yards’ tropical flowers to create 20 bouquets. Another neighbor offered to cool her house enough to store the flowers beforehand. The event was Arakaki’s most successful campaign yet—raising $88,000, enough for 352,000 meals for the Maui Food Bank.

“Our events build camaraderie within the volunteers and guests as we all work toward a common cause,” Arakaki says. “You can feel the energy and support.”

While members of Arakaki’s sphere are quick to show up for her, she’s also quick to show up for them. She has served as a mentor to others in creating their own food drives, and she also volunteers at Navarro’s annual charity golf tournament.

“She has been a champion of charity work and fundraising for so many deserving beneficiaries,” says Navarro. “She has shown how much more powerfully this [volunteer work] can resonate when you do it along with the people you live next to and work with.”

“Allow people to give, and they will be drawn to give. We keep doing this because we can make a difference. And we can make an even bigger difference together.” – Debbie Arakaki, broker, Compass

In August 2023, devastating wildfires destroyed 2,000 homes and businesses in Arakaki’s hometown. Four of Arakaki’s six real estate team members lost their homes, as did her daughter. Arakaki’s home survived and now serves as a hub of communication for relief efforts. Along with supporting the food bank, which faces unprecedented need, Arakaki and a group of other long-time Maui residents created the Maui Pono Foundation. The mission of the nonprofit is to provide immediate funds to help families and small businesses that lost everything in the fire. “We have 500 families in a database already,” says Arakaki. “Recovery and rebuilding will be a marathon and not a sprint.”

Arakaki says she has been moved by the relief efforts of Maui residents, as well as people across the United States and the world, including a $1.5 million donation from the REALTORS® Relief Foundation. “Everyone has been so generous and so caring. We feel so much aloha coming through. It’s been very healing and makes us feel loved.”

For Arakaki, it’s never been about the power of one but rather the power of many. “We keep doing this because we can make a difference. And we can make an even bigger difference together.”

Debbie Arakaki of Lahaina, Hawaii, is broker with Compass Real Estate and major fundraiser for Maui Food Bank.


All NAR Good Neighbor Programs: