HSTA pledges continued support for affected members

More than eight months after deadly wildfires destroyed Lahaina town and shook the Maui community to its core, one school community is preparing for a major transition.

Teachers, staff and students from Kamehameha III Elementary School, which was destroyed by fire, are scheduled to move into a newly constructed temporary campus at the end of March.

The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association will visit the campus on March 25, monitor the transition, and assist any teachers who may need to transfer campuses next school year.

The union also plans to continue to support HSTA members impacted by the trauma as long as they need help.

Here’s a preview of King Kamehameha III Elementary at Pulelehua:

Union took immediate action with response, relief

On Aug. 8, 2023, the Lahaina and Kula areas suffered devastating wildfires, killing 101 people, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, displacing families from homes, and students and educators from schools. More than 100 educators and retirees lost their homes in the disaster.

The HSTA immediately devoted its elected leaders, staff and resources to check on our Maui members’ well-being and needs through various means, including surveying them via email and text, calling members by phone, asking other faculty to report on the status of colleagues we are unable to reach, and holding in-person meetings to provide what answers and support we could while allowing our members to simply grieve together.

“HSTA really got involved right away,” said Lisa Thompson, a student activities coordinator at Maui’s Kūlanihākoʻi High School and HSTA secretary/treasurer. “I was glad to see the support that immediately emerged from members and board members. We arranged a text messaging system to see how all of our members on Maui were doing, make sure that we accounted for who might be in need of help, and connect them with those who wanted to help.”

Realizing that many people had limited access to digital communications, HSTA held in-person fire-relief meetings for members to learn more about assistance available to them and provide a space for them to grieve and connect with one another.

Mike Landes, a social studies teacher at Lahainaluna High School for 20 years and HSTA’s Maui Chapter president, said his home became a sort of “command and communication center” amidst the tragedy.

The HSTA coordinated several caravans into Lahaina to take food and supplies to those in need, especially when access was severely restricted in the days following the wildfires. The union activated and deployed staff locally and from across the country to assist.

Landes noted that the union brought over legal assistance for members with questions and that “we’re just really just trying to help connect the dots as much as we can for the people who are who have lost everything and who don’t want to leave their community but are sort of in no man’s land with no communication, or very limited communication.”

The HSTA communications team constantly updated members and the public about the latest developments, from school closures to the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education’s reopening plan, to telling stories of teachers who lost their homes and classrooms, to inspiring efforts by teachers who led volunteer evacuation center coordination efforts and others who took in colleagues and families right away, as well as the emotional story of a teacher who saved her former student’s life the day of the fires. Many of HSTA’s news stories were picked up nationally and even internationally as interest in the disaster rose around the world.

HSTA leaders and staff from Oʻahu supported our leaders and staff on Maui as they held numerous meetings to speak to teachers firsthand about their needs during such a difficult time. The union posted a fire support web story that was updated on a regular basis to spotlight various aid available to our members, such our direct payments to those who lost their homes, as well as state and federal relief efforts. The HSTA also posted important mental health resources for educators and students, offering links and information on new services that were offered in the wake of the fires.

When President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Lahaina following the blazes, teachers met with them to share their stories, which one of them spoke about with HSTA in this video. A few days after that visit, teacher leaders were buoyed by a special virtual check-in from Dr. Jill Biden to the HSTA’s Board of Directors meeting, which she joined live from Air Force One. Three months later, the first lady checked in on another HSTA board meeting, offering more support.

The HSTA communications staff chronicled a series of large community meetings hosted by the HIDOE during which parents and teachers demanded the department allow public school students to stay in Lahaina, despite its plans to disperse them elsewhere on the island.

HSTA spearheads, manages donation page for Maui teachers

As the HSTA learned that more than 130 teachers and retired educators had lost their homes and/or classrooms during the Maui wildfires, it quickly set up a donation page to display members’ individual crowdsourcing pages so they could receive donations. Days after the wildfires broke out, the HSTA Board of Directors voted unanimously to allocate $150,000 to be spent on Maui disaster relief for HSTA members whose homes and classrooms had been destroyed.

National Education Association President Becky Pringle attended the meeting virtually to offer national support toward relief efforts.

“As those needs evolve and as you learn of new ones, know that we will be there with you throughout as you rebuild, as you heal, as you grieve, as you inspire each other,” she said.

In its first round of relief, the union provided checks of $1,000 to members who had been displaced from their homes because their primary residence was damaged by the fires and $500 checks to those members whose classrooms or workspaces were destroyed in the disaster. The HSTA sent a second and final round of $2,665 relief checks in the late fall to 92 members and HSTA-Retired members whose homes were unlivable or destroyed.

“Our heartfelt thanks to more than 300 people and organizations from around the nation and across the state who have donated more than $434,000 for HSTA’s fire relief efforts,” said HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr.

The HSTA featured two Tampa-area schools whose students raised $13,500 for Maui teachers over the span of a week by doing things like household chores and running lemonade stands. The students also wrote heartfelt letters of encouragement to survivors. The NEA’s Member Benefits organization also set up a digital donation option via a special GoFundMe page, which collected more than $50,000.

HSTA, Kamehameha Schools distribute backpacks to Lahaina students

In October, hundreds of Lahaina families picked up free backpacks filled with school supplies as their keiki (children) prepared to return to West Maui campuses following fall break.

In all, 3,000 backpacks were filled with supplies and a handmade card and delivered to Maui through a special partnership between HSTA and Kamehameha Schools, a local trust that operates private schools for students of Hawaiian ancestry on three islands.

Dozens of volunteers — including teachers and retirees, and HSTA and Kamehameha Schools staff — gathered on Oʻahu in September to fill the backpacks with supplies, pack them into boxes, and load them onto a shipping container for transport to Maui.

Nimitz Elementary teacher Logan Okita, HSTA’s vice president, said, “We’re here to stand with the community, and we’re here to support our teachers, because ultimately, it supports our students and our community, and it helps us to make sure that everybody will thrive.”