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Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson pledged $10M for Maui wildfire survivors. They gave much more.

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Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson pledged $10M for Maui wildfire survivors. They gave much more.
News

News

Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson pledged $10M for Maui wildfire survivors. They gave much more.

2024-04-23 09:07 Last Updated At:09:10

Lana Vierra misses the swing set at her Lahaina home, which was reduced to ashes in the wildfires that swept through her community last summer.

“Multiple generations went through there playing in my front yard," she said. "Just with the animals and the turtles and the deer and goats that we once had in that little tiny yard.”

A grandmother of four and a mother of five, Vierra had lived in the home on a corner lot since 1991. She and ten family members, including a baby less than one year old, were displaced in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. In the weeks that followed, she and her adult children applied for and received many different kinds of assistance, including from the People's Fund of Maui, an initiative set up by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson.

All of them, except one adult son, have since received six monthly payments of $1,200 directly in their bank accounts from the People's Fund. Vierra credits the payments with helping them stay current on their mortgage, which they had to pay even though the house was destroyed. When she learned she would receive direct payments, she said, “That was in the back of my head that if I had to use it, I had it. And it would probably save my house.”

When Winfrey and Johnson launched the People's Fund for Maui, which benefitted people who lost their homes in the wildfires, they committed $10 million and asked others to join them. At the time, the request was met with some criticism, given especially Winfrey's wealth and extensive estate in Maui.

In the end, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a longtime nonprofit that helps celebrities administer charitable work and that managed the distribution of the funds, said it raised almost $60 million. That money was dispersed between September and February to some 8,100 adults — a significant portion of the 12,000 people the state of Hawaii estimates were displaced.

The foundation wouldn't say exactly how much Winfrey and Johnson gave in total, but a list of other contributors indicates the bulk came from them. EIF said more than 20,000 individuals and companies donated to the fund.

In September, Winfrey posted a video on social media thanking supporters, saying, “Your generosity, I guarantee you, is going to touch the lives of many families.”

Over many years, the disaster response community has grown to trust direct cash transfers like these as a very useful tool, said Shannon Doocy, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Despite initial fears of misuse, she said, research has shown cash transfers overwhelmingly benefit the intended recipients who spend it on essentials like housing and food.

“Generally, there’s the idea that cash provides dignity and choice, that it’s a more cost effective use of assistance, ” said Doocy. “Because not every household has the exact same needs, and households know their needs better than outside organizations.”

Many nonprofits and government programs now use direct cash transfers, including others in Maui, following disasters.

Vierra's family has tried to save all the money they've received, including from a GoFundMe that family members set up, direct gifts strangers sent to her daughter’s Venmo account and a gift from a fundraiser Fox News host Will Cain started. They will need that money — and more — to rebuild, though those plans are still very distant.

She said they are extremely grateful to everyone who donated and for the mutual aid efforts that were set up immediately after the fires. Those local efforts were how most people received assistance in the first weeks after the fire, said Maui-based attorney Lance Collins, who is representing some survivors.

“People felt that, in general, there was a tremendous outpouring of generosity by individuals and community groups and I think that Oprah and The Rock fell into that category,” he said.

Most of Vierra's family has been staying in hotels, an initial boon to the disaster response in a community where demand for housing was already extremely high before 12,000 people lost their homes in the fires. However, uncertainty and issues with mental health have been growing among those staying in hotels, according to nonprofits working with them, said Lauren Nahme, senior vice president of the Maui Recovery Effort at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation.

In January, state and county governments along with the foundation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a $500 million commitment to build 3,000 housing units that would offer displaced people shelter for at least 18 months. The foundation committed $50 million to the effort, its single largest grant from its Maui Strong fund, which it opened immediately after the wildfires. In total, the fund raised $189 million from more than 250,000 people all over the world.

The foundation followed a disaster response plan it had crafted in 2019, in anticipation of a possible catastrophic event. It has paid out $89 million in grants so far, purposefully directing the majority of its support toward recovery and stabilization efforts which will extend over months and years. This is the work that direct cash transfers won't address, including providing services, strengthening social support systems and rebuilding with the next potential disaster in mind.

Kaimana Brummel, who leads fundraising at Seabury Hall, a private school in Maui, was invited to offer some thoughts about the design of the People’s Fund of Maui. She said she suggested that the fund make every adult who was displaced eligible for a direct cash transfer instead of just every household.

Brummel said what she saw of Winfrey and Johnson’s approach made her feel that they were approaching this gift with the spirit of a Hawaiian word, “‘kahiau.’ And it means to give lavishly, with no expectation of getting anything in return.”

Barry Probst, a therapist whose family has lived on Lahaina for four generations, said the absolute best case scenario is that he and his wife would rebuild and move into a new home in 2026. They are lucky to stay in a second bedroom of a condo owned by good friends, who spend half the year in Hawaii. He's used the funds he received from the People's Fund of Maui to twice pay for repairing his car and also to complete an intensive training on trauma treatment he hopes to use to help others in the community.

“For the rest of the world, August 8th was an event that happened and they go on with the rest of their lives and rightfully so,” said Probst. “But for us that were directly impacted and live here, it’s something that we have to navigate on a daily basis.”

Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

FILE - The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

FILE - The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

FILE - Wilted palm trees line a destroyed property, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Wilted palm trees line a destroyed property, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Dwayne Johnson attends the world premiere of "Black Adam" in New York on Oct. 12, 2022, left, and Oprah Winfrey appears at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans on June 30, 2023. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Winfrey and Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo)

FILE - Dwayne Johnson attends the world premiere of "Black Adam" in New York on Oct. 12, 2022, left, and Oprah Winfrey appears at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans on June 30, 2023. The nonprofit Entertainment Industry Foundation says the People's Fund of Maui, which was started by Winfrey and Johnson to benefit survivors of the wildfires last summer, has given away almost $60 million over six months to 8,100 adults. (AP Photo)

A potential multibillion-dollar settlement of an antitrust lawsuit cleared the second of a three-step NCAA approval process Tuesday, with no change to a payment structure that would have the 27 college conferences not named in the suit cover the majority of a $1.6 billion portion of the damages.

The Division I Board of Directors voted to move forward on a proposed $2.77 billion settlement of House vs. NCAA, according to two people who had been briefed on the vote. They said the vote was not unanimous, but it was unclear exactly how the 24 member-board voted.

The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the NCAA was not revealing its internal discussions related to the settlement. The NCAA Board of Governors still must sign off on the deal for final approval. It is scheduled to meet later this week.

The D-I board's finance committee recommended on Monday to stick with the original finance plan for the settlement, which has drawn the ire of non-power conference leaders who believe their leagues will bear a disproportionate financial burden.

The NCAA, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference are defendants in the House case, a class-action lawsuit that seeks back pay for college athletes who were denied name, image and likeness compensation dating to 2016. The NCAA lifted its ban on athletes earning money for sponsorship and endorsement deals in 2021.

The Big 12 became the first conference to approve the settlement Tuesday, with their board of university presidents and chancellors voting unanimously in favor, another person with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the conferences were not making any public statements about the settlement for now.

Later Tuesday, the ACC presidents also voted to approve the settlement, according to a person with knowledge of their vote who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Big Ten and SEC presidents were scheduled to vote on the settlement deal later this week.

Moving forward, it will be the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and SEC making the largest investment as the settlement includes a proposed revenue-sharing system that asks their schools to commit upwards of $20 million per year to be paid directly to athletes. The overall commitment is expected to be about $300 million per school over 10 years.

The NCAA office is set to cover $2.77 billion in damages over 10 years through a reduction of operating expenses, insurance and reserve funds. Withheld distributions to its 352 Division I member schools would cover the rest. The NCAA distributes more than $700 million per year to its 1,100 member schools in three divisions, the vast majority to Division I.

The approved finance plan for the settlement calls for the NCAA to cover 41% of the $2.77 billion in damages, with the Power Five conferences accounting for 24% and the other five major college football conferences — the so-called Group of Five — covering 10%.

The conferences that compete in the second tier of Division I football, the Championship Subdivision, would cover 14% of the overall settlement and the non-football D-I conferences would be on the hook for 12%.

The conference commissioners from leagues that do not compete at the highest tier of Division I football, the Bowl Subdivision, have taken issue with the $1.6 billion in withheld distribution portion of the settlement.

The 27 conferences not named in the lawsuit are expected to cover 60% of withheld distributions, with the other 40% coming from power conferences that are currently comprised of 69 schools.

The commissioners of the 22 non-FBS conferences sent a memo to NCAA leadership, proposing the finance structure be flipped so power conference withheld distributions cover 60% of the $1.6 billion.

Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said earlier Tuesday the non-FBS conferences were holding out hope for reconsideration.

"We’re fighting uphill," he said.

The Big Sky is one of the most successful conferences in the Championship Subdivision, with schools such as Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington, Idaho State and Weber State.

“We believe over 95% of the damages are going to go to (Power Five) football and basketball players. For non-A5 conferences to pay for that is disproportionate. We’re asking for a more proportionate structure because our student-athletes are not going to see the money," Wistrcill said,

Plaintiffs' lawyers have given the NCAA and conferences until Thursday to respond to the settlement proposal, with parties on both sides sounding hopeful that it will be approved.

The conferences not named in the lawsuit did not find out about details of the proposed settlement until two weeks ago through media reports, Wistrcill said. He said they are hoping the settlement can be approved with an opportunity for the NCAA financing plan to be readdressed, but the prospects of that diminished even further with the full board's approval Tuesday night.

Wistrcill said the formula for withheld distributions the NCAA is using, which is based on the percentage a conference received of overall NCAA distributions between 2016-2024, is projected to cost the Big Sky around $3 million per year over 10 years.

He said while power conferences will have a larger total distribution withheld on a per school basis, that revenue is a much smaller part of athletic department budgets that typically soar past $100 million annually. It also does not take into account the huge influx of revenue those schools are about to receive from the expanded College Football Playoff.

Big Sky school athletic budgets run about $20 million annually.

“The money is flowing to their student-athletes while disproportionately (the settlement) is penalizing our institutions,” Wistrcill said.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com

AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

FILE - Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson dribbles past the NCAA logo during practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament March 26, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. University presidents around the country are scheduled to meet this week in May 2024, to vote on whether to accept a proposed settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that would cost the NCAA nearly $3 billion in damages. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

FILE - Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson dribbles past the NCAA logo during practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament March 26, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. University presidents around the country are scheduled to meet this week in May 2024, to vote on whether to accept a proposed settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that would cost the NCAA nearly $3 billion in damages. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

FILE - In this April 25, 2018, file photo, the NCAA headquarters is shown in Indianapolis. University presidents around the country are scheduled to meet this week in May 2024, to vote on whether to accept a proposed settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that would cost the NCAA nearly $3 billion in damages. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

FILE - In this April 25, 2018, file photo, the NCAA headquarters is shown in Indianapolis. University presidents around the country are scheduled to meet this week in May 2024, to vote on whether to accept a proposed settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that would cost the NCAA nearly $3 billion in damages. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

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