Maui’s ‘Lei of Aloha’ Honors Parkland’s School Shooting Victim on 21st Birthday
March 25, 2021, 2:14 PM HST
* Updated March 25, 4:48 PM
Olympic swimming hopeful Nicholas Dworet should have been celebrating his 21st birthday Wednesday, but instead his family, friends and strangers honored his memory Hawaiian style at Lanikai Beach on Oʻahu. The ceremony featured hula dancing, a young Maui musician’s original song, a ¼-mile-long lei from Maui and a blessing from Hawaiʻi spiritual leader Kimokeo Kapahulehua.
Three years ago, “Nick” was one of 17 people killed by a gunman in the horrific Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. He was a high school senior, looking forward to college and with dreams of competing at the Olympic Games in Sweden (his mother’s homeland). But at age 17, his life was extinguished in a flash in the deadliest school shooting in US history. And to add to the family’s tragedy, Nick’s younger brother Alex was grazed in the back of the head by a bullet, one of 17 people injured by the teenaged shooter.
Nick’s parents, Annika and Mitchell Dworet, said their eldest son always had wanted to come to Hawaiʻi since he was a young boy. From the time he could speak, Nicholas fancied Hawai’i’s state fish, perfectly pronouncing “humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa” before entering 1st grade. But “unfortunately we were never able to go as a family,” a family statement said.
Wednesday’s ceremony in Hawaiʻi was about honoring and healing.
Ron Panzo, owner of Nalu’s South Shore Grill in Kīhei and a founder of Maui-based Lei of Aloha for World Peace, coordinated the weaving of the lei for Nick’s family.
The Dworets had reached out to Lei of Aloha to participate in the Hawaiian ceremony. The family wanted “to repay the kindness showed to them by people from the islands.” Just five days after the shooting, a group from Hawaiʻi made a lei and delivered it in person to Parkland. It was the longest lei the group has done — 3 miles.
“There were a dozen of us, teachers and students and our cultural leader Kimokeo who made the trip,” Panzo said. “The amazing thing about this lei, it was just about the aloha. Another community 5,000 miles away feeling the horror and pain and having the empathy, and not knowing anybody, speaks volumes of the culture in Hawaiʻi.”
More than 1,000 volunteers and about 30 schools around Hawai’i worked on the ti-leaf lei. Each school weaving about 1/16th of a mile, complete with ribbons in their school colors.
“Everyone met at the rotunda of the capitol in Honolulu and we assembled the lei there before going to the airport,” Panzo said.
It was the group’s fifth such lei. The first was made in 2015, for the “130 lost souls” of the Paris terrorist attacks at six locations around the French capital.
The idea was hatched at Nalu’s, where Panzo and friend Sherrie Austin (founder of the Cynthia Rose Foundation) were discussing the Paris tragedy. They talked about “sending Paris a hug.” The hug turned into a lei.
“We said: ‘Let’s send the longest lei in the world’,” Panzo recalled. “The next day we had 14 truckloads of ti leaves from all over. The mountains, the valleys, people’s backyards. Dozens showed up and over 3 days, with over 200 volunteers completing the mile-long lei.”
Lei of Aloha for World Peace was founded, and since then they also have made leis for the 49 victims and 43 wounded at the 2016 Orlando Pulse Club shooting; in support of the worldwide Women’s March of 2017; the 60 victims and 411 wounded at the 2017 Las Vegas shooting; in support of Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage to promote caring for the Earth; a Pacific Cancer Foundation Paddle for Life fundraiser; and for the 51 victims and 40 injured in the 2019 terrorist attack of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
And, Panzo said, the group was asked by the nonprofit group Tuesday’s Children to make a lei for the 20th anniversary of 9-11. The group, which serves communities altered by acts of violence, was named for the children whose parents were killed on that Tuesday morning during the terrorist attacks of 2001.
At Parkland, a portion of the 3-mile lei was draped on the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a massive makeshift memorial sprung up.
This time, the Maui group got a last-minute request for the lei for Nick’s ceremony. In two half-day sessions, about 20 volunteers lovingly made the lei from ti leaves. If stretched out, it would be about 1/4 mile. In O’ahu, they gifted the lei to 17 members of Nakoa Kai Canoe Club. “We do this out of respect for the place you are going to,” said Maui musician Anthony Pfluke. “Then they gave it to Nick’s family. That’s the Hawaiian way of doing it.”
The ceremony on O’ahu included hula dancing by mother and daughter Chrystal and Callie Cayaban, who also attended the Parkland ceremony. They danced to ʻO ʻOe ʻlo, originally a Maori hymn from New Zealand.
“The song talks about the highest bird, which in Hawai’i is the Hawaiian hawk that flies higher than other birds, and the highest mountain,” Pfluke said. “It represents the highest love of all.”
Pfluke played his 12-string guitar while singing his original song, “We Will Rise.” He first sang the song, which he had written only two days earlier, for the people in Parkland.
“It really was divinely inspired,” Pfluke said. “The intention was to write something on behalf of those lost, and it coninues to be for anyone lost through tragedy and COVID.”
He said the chorus called out, “Look to the Light and I’ll Be There,” which he received from his grandmother.
“The verses were about being in a place of lack of hope for the world, and how to move forward from this,” Pfluke said. “It is still happening with the Denver shooting and everything. The song is a message to inspire hope and change while being comforting for family and victims.”
In the song, he also included the spiritual chant: E Ala E. “The chant brings hope and mana (healing power) that we can come together and rise up together in horrible tragedy and tragedies that continue to happen.”
On Wednesday, part of the lei was draped on the canoe that was paddled toward the Mokulua islands. Spiritual leader Kapahulehua accompanied Nick’s family and close friends, who were wearing “Swim for Nick” shirts. Kapahulehua provided a blessing before Nick’s ashes were scattered in the blue water — a special place for a person who loved to swim and who loved humuhumunukunukuapua`as.
“Nick had heard they were going to do an Olympic training camp in Hawai’I and he was so excited about it,” Panzo said he was told.
As the family returned to the beach, Pfluke sang, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” accompanied by a close friend of the Dworet family. Pfluke, who is looking forward to his own upcoming 21st birthday, said it hit home. “Nick and I were both born in 2000.”
Upon the canoe’s return to shore, soft raindrops began to fall.
“The rain was letting us know nature was there with us,” Pfluke said. “Not too much rain, just a little reminder to us all of Nick’s presence. The sun was still shining and the water was beautifully clear. It felt like a dream. Just as soon as we were done loading everything back into the cars, there was a big downpour. And then in two minutes, the sun shined again.”