Pearl Harbor Elementary School students demonstrate confidence, maturity and empathy in their Maui wildfire relief efforts.
At about 6:45 p.m. on Aug. 8, the night news broke about wildfires devastating Lahaina, before any of us knew how many people had died or how many families had been displaced, Trisha Toyama-Wakumoto got a call.
Two teachers at Pearl Harbor Elementary School, where she had just started as principal, wanted to organize a donation drive at the school for those affected by the wildfires.
One of the teachers knew someone who was delivering a shipment of goods to Maui on Wednesday. But they had to collect donations the next morning.
Just after 7 p.m. that night, Linda Kelly, the school’s technology coordinator, got the word out to families on ClassDojo, a digital sharing platform the school uses.
And not 12 hours later, at drop-off, Pearl Harbor Elementary families delivered loads of canned goods, blankets, diapers, clothing, bottled water, shoes and toilet paper.
One parent even made individual first-aid kits. The school took donations through noon — because families kept coming back to drop off goods.
“That’s how our school has always been,” says Kelly, who’s been at Pearl Harbor Elementary for more than 30 years. “This is a caring and supportive community.”
That mentality extends to the kids, too.
That week seven 6th graders who are part of the school’s newly formed Sharks Ambassador program — Kenneth Batongbacal, Khloe Benigno, Jadelynn Godoy, Taylor Hangai, Elnathan Labuguen, Jorrell Onosai-Masaniai, Layton Rivera — met to discuss how the students could get involved in helping. (The school’s nickname is the Sharks.)
They sat in a conference room and brainstormed ideas on bright yellow Post-its.
“We had them empathize first,” says Toyama-Wakumoto. “We asked them, ʻWhat do you believe Maui families need right now? What would students need?ʻ”
The students wrote down their ideas and, with the help of Toyama-Wakumoto, Kelly and educational assistant Ashley Brown, categorized them into groups. What emerged were three themes that mattered most to these kids: words of encouragement, raising money and showing support.
“I felt like I wished we could do something,” says Khloe, 11.
Added Jorrell, 11: “One of (our classmate’s) uncle and aunty lost everything. That made us more passionate about helping the people of Maui.”
So the Shark Ambassadors decided to organized a Pink Out Day on Tuesday, where the entire school — students, faculty, staff — wore pink to symbolize solidarity with and show support for Maui. (The island color of Maui is pink, or akala, after the lokelani rose.)
The students also produced a video — shown on the school’s Instagram and in classrooms — encouraging people to donate to the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation, which is directing all monetary donations now through Oct. 1 to Maui public schools affected by the wildfires.
This is what the school calls “compassion in action.”
“When we envision what we want our students to be when they leave the school, we want them to be good leaders, have good communication skills and be able to contribute back to the community in some way,” Toyama-Wakumoto says. “That’s the foundation of what Shark Ambassadors are.”
Even children as young as my first-grade son understand what has happened on Maui. They empathize with families and other kids who have lost loved ones, pets, homes, everything. And they want to help — but they need adults, like the ones at Pearl Harbor Elementary, to support them.
That’s what makes this Sharks Ambassador program so meaningful: These students aren’t just learning the life skills of communicating effectively and working collaboratively, they’re realizing the importance of helping the community and how their actions of compassion, even just wearing a pink shirt to school, can have a lasting impact on others.
It impacted me, that’s for sure.
And good begets good. These kids saw the outpouring of support from the school community at the donation drive. (The items were stacked up on the sidewalk outside the main building, so kids walked by them all morning.)
If something like this happens again, they’ll remember what the school did to help.
“We really empathize how they feel, losing everything they had, their loved ones, their personal things,” says Jadelynn, 11. “It’s so sad.”
Pearl Harbor Elementary wasn’t the only school in Hawaii to do something to support Maui victims.
Iolani School parents provided a dollar-for-dollar match up to $100,000 to Aloha United Wary for any donation made by its faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and friends.
Hilo High School asked its community for donations of hygiene bags, backpacks filled with school supplies and gift cards, saying on its Instagram: “Any small thing you can bring can make a difference in someone’s life.”
Kailua High encouraged students to create cards with words of love and inspiration for those on Maui. And Kaohao School in Kailua organized a donation drive, asking for non-perishable foods, clean clothes,
water and blankets.
But Pink Out Day at Pearl Harbor Elementary, where half of the students are military and half quality for free and reduced lunch, was an idea entirely conceived and executed by students.
Brown, who has known most of these students since they started as kindergarteners, has seen a tremendous growth in confidence, maturity and empathy in them. She hopes to expand the program this fall, double the number of ambassadors and continue to provide support with projects that are meaningful to them.
“I’m so proud of them,” she says, noting how confident they were in the interview with me. “Their answers really came from their heart.”
And these students are not done.
Taylor, a Shark Ambassador who has a dog named Ellie, wants to organize a donation drive focused on helping pets and their owners.
“When I was walking down the piles of donations, I noticed there wasn’t any pet food,” she says. “I felt bad for all the animals.”
No idea is off the table, Toyama-Wakumoto says.
“This is about giving students a voice so they can change and transform the community,” she says. “We will support it 100%, especially if it’s good for the community.”