PAHOA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - For more than a month, hundreds of lava evacuees have been living at the Pahoa emergency shelter.
It's anything but ideal: Many are sleeping in tents on the grounds. There have been fights, drug use, even a confirmed suicide.
But you wouldn't get a sense for the hardship of living out of a suitcase from the de Souzas.
Instead, you'd get something surprising, considering just how much they've been through: Hope.
They're known as Auntie Willie and Auntie Linda — Wilhemina Kamalamalama de Souza and her wife, Linda, both 65 — and they evacuated from their home in lower Puna after volcanic emissions were making it difficult for them to breathe.
They grabbed what they could, packed up their two parrots, and headed for the shelter.
Before they left, though, Auntie Willie made sure to take something she'd work toward for decades: Her graduation gown.
"They are both in wheelchairs and to look at them they are very unassuming," said Red Cross volunteer Amy Laurel Hegy.
"Auntie Willie, I watched her get dressed the first Saturday in her cap and gown and after 35 years of plugging away at her degree she became the very first family in her family to graduate."
Actually, she graduated with three degrees from the University of Hawaii at Hilo — bachelor's degrees in philosophy, women's studies and fine arts.
"Even if it took me long time, I did it," said de Souza, laughing. "It was an honor, then I went to the back and I went to sleep."
Shortly after that high moment, though, a low: De Souza was taken to the hospital after falling ill. That's when shelter staff and other evacuees learned she's also battling cancer.
"She is very sick," Linda de Souza said.
But when she got well enough to be discharged, Auntie Willie wouldn't hear of moving elsewhere: She wanted to return to the shelter. She wanted to return to her newfound extended family.
"I'm honored that the shelter has become that for her, like we're doing something right if they are feeling that way," Hegy said.
And, she added, the feeling is mutual.
"I mean they have really become a central force of family in this shelter," Hegy said. "I would have to say that the most profound impact has been these two ladies."
"Auntie Willie" says she's optimistic — upbeat — because there's no use in being any other way.
The eruptions, she says, can't be stopped so there's no use in dwelling about what could have been.
"Make them understand that is our nature goddess," he said. "Don't think she is over here destroying. She is not. She is just cleaning up."
This profile is part of our digital series, "Pele's Path: People of Puna."