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Lahaina teachers memorialize students lost to the fires

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Almost three weeks after a deadly wildfire swept through parts of West Maui, community members have begun to find ways to memorialize those who have been lost and remain unaccounted for. NPR's Kira Wakeam brings us this story of one Lahaina teacher who's leading efforts to remember local children who are among the 115 lives lost.

KIRA WAKEAM, BYLINE: Kiley Adolpho is a third-grade teacher at Princess Nahi'ena'ena Elementary School in Lahaina. And she has just one hope.

KILEY ADOLPHO: I want people to remember their faces, not just names.

WAKEAM: While most schools in the area remained closed after the fires, she and a group of teachers decided they needed somewhere to remember the students they've lost.

ADOLPHO: We wanted a visual representation of the people we love. We wanted to see each other, to share each other's spirit.

WAKEAM: They've created a memorial here at Kelawea Mauka Makai Park, roughly a mile from the water. Perched along a mountainside with sweeping views of the now decimated Lahaina town, Adolpho says, before the fires, this park was the place to be for kids.

ADOLPHO: Coming down the hill every day, you see the children running, just running. And they stopped right here to be picked up by their parents, waiting for their friends from other schools from the top side.

WAKEAM: The memorial includes posters of two young victims and an ahu, a Native Hawaiian altar made of stones from a local stream and native plants. Adolpho, who's native Hawaiian, visits the park daily to tend to the ahu, water its plants and greet visitors. On this day, she's talking to Trinette Furtado and Kamiki Carter of Maui Rapid Response, a locally run disaster response team.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cherry cookie. Chocolate cherry cheesecake. Peanut butter, vanilla fudge.

ADOLPHO: Let me give you a hug first.

WAKEAM: The two were delivering food, water and ice cream in the neighborhood when they spotted Kiley and decided to help her publicize the memorial on Facebook.

ADOLPHO: Are we doing it under one minute? - because I know there's just a...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Just put it. There's no - just do it.

ADOLPHO: (Laughter) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am not...

WAKEAM: Adolpho is trying to get the word out and encourages anyone who's grieving to share their memories here.

ADOLPHO: I'm hoping that they'll continue to come because the story will continue so no one forgets.

WAKEAM: Kellie Perez also teaches at Princess Nahi'ena'ena Elementary School. She and her husband drove up to deliver supplies to a nearby community resource hub. She taught one of the deceased students, 7-year-old Tony Takafua.

KELLIE PEREZ: We had just started our first day of kindergarten. Everybody was there. And he stood up very proudly, and he said, I'm tall because I'm Tongan. And I said, yes, you are, sweet boy. Now let's have a great year.

WAKEAM: For her, having a place she can come and share memories of Tony like this one have helped her grieve.

PEREZ: Even just being here for the short time I've been here, we've already had other people stop up and drop leis. And it's just a really nice place to mourn together.

WAKEAM: Meanwhile, West Maui teachers are going back to work this week. The state Education Department is holding meetings with them about how they'll approach school reopenings. But for Adolpho, the thought of returning before she can account for her students is too difficult to imagine.

ADOLPHO: I've been here only a few years, 13 years maybe. And that would be an average of 20 students each year, 230 students. And I tell my friends that 230 students that I'm looking for, how am I going to teach? I'm going to go to a school and I'm not going to see any one of them, worrying about, where are my students?

WAKEAM: Something that won't be known today, tomorrow or perhaps for weeks to come. Kira Wakeam, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kira Wakeam