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At Hawaiian Airlines, we know that when the going gets tough, our employees will always come together to help one another. The perpetuation of values like lōkahi (unity) and mālama (to care for) is intrinsic to our company, strengthening our role as the hometown carrier for over 90 years.

When the Hawai‘i State Department of Education (HIDOE) announced the Aug. 4 reopening of public schools with new COVID-19 protocols, we unveiled the Kōkua Our Schools program. The initiative, which kicked off in June in partnership with City Mill and POW! WOW! Hawai‘i, started with a callout to HIDOE school principals that offered volunteers through Team Kōkua, Hawaiianʻs employee community outreach group, to help ready their campuses for the fall semester.

Alisa Onishi, director of brand management at Hawaiian Airlines, power-washing the walkways of Maunawili Elementary, a participating school.


Ka‘elepulu Elementary was the first to call for assistance.

Each year, Ka‘elepulu welcomes over 200 keiki (children) in grades K-5 at its campus in Kailua, O‘ahu. Nestled in a quiet residential area, the elementary school has eight classrooms, a multipurpose room and administrative office, and two gardens. Its three buildings sit on over 11 acres of land, including a large hill that borders the back of campus and sported unruly, eight-foot-tall California grass and gnarled haole koa trees. 

Year-round, Ka‘elepulu’s two custodians maintain the school’s buildings and green space. However, the pandemic brought an early end to in-person learning, forcing the school to shutter for several weeks. As a result, tropical growth overran its grounds and gardens.

Team Kōkua tackling the invasive California grass that lined the backside of Ka‘elepulu’s property.


That’s when Team Kōkua lent a hand. For three six-hour workdays, 49 volunteers cleared fickle weeds, removed invasive trees, mowed overgrown grass, cleaned gardens, moved heavy classroom materials and furniture, and painted alongside Ka‘elepuluʻs caretakers and principal, Cherilyn Inouye.

Inouye, pictured far right, worked alongside Team Kōkua as they gardened, landscaped and completed other duties before the start of the new school year.


“We have to maintain a large campus, so we often rely on community volunteers and parents to help with our gardens and landscaping during the summer. Hawaiian Airlines provided us with the manpower at no cost to us, and we were able to complete several major projects on campus in just a few days (which would have taken our staff weeks to complete),” Inouye said. 

“This allowed us to complete our summer cleaning schedule ahead of time, work on backlogged projects, and prepare for reopening school.”

When the campus refresh was complete, the school boasted a reinvigorated and vibrant learning environment.

Volunteers working in the central garden at Ka'elepulu.


“It was an incredible feeling to step back and see the impact of our employees’ hard work. That was a moment when we felt the impact of coming together for the greater community,” said Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of community and cultural relations at Hawaiian Airlines. “Hawai‘i is our home, and when we invest in our community, we are also investing in ourselves. Being able to help our islands’ schools and breathe life back into our communities is an honor.”

Volunteers and their 'ohana painting benches at Hale‘iwa Elementary School on O‘ahu's North Shore.


Our partners City Mill and POW! WOW! Hawai‘i played a critical role in supporting our employees’ work, contributing yard supplies, painting materials, and artists who painted a vibrant mural in the school’s cafeteria.

“It meant a lot to our custodians to have a team of volunteers to help with (literally) the heavy lifting and moving of furniture and tackle a seemingly endless hillside of invasive grass and trees behind the school,” Inouye said. “Our teachers stop by the campus and express their gratitude for the work the volunteers did and how beautiful our campus looks. We were also thankful for mural artists Jeff Gress and Kamea Hadar of the Pow! Wow! Hawaiʻi team, who completed an ‘Aloha’ mural in just two days. Our staff loves how bright and welcoming it is, and we cannot wait for our students to see it when they return.”

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POW! WOW! Hawai‘i artists Alana Wilson, Kamea Hadar, and Jeff Gress pictured with their final artwork at Ka‘elepulu Elementary.


Ka‘elepulu is one of six schools throughout the state benefitting from the Kōkua Our Schools program this summer. Other schools with completed Team Kōkua projects include Waimea Canyon Middle on Kauaʻi, Hale‘īwa Elementary on Oʻahu’s North Shore, and Maunawili and Kailua Elementary, also on Oʻahu’s eastside. King Kamehameha III Elementary in Lahaina, Maui, is planned for the end of July. Each school’s need is different, though jobs have primarily focused on time-intensive and arduous projects, including landscaping, classroom prep, student device cleaning and set-up, painting, adding social distancing markers to walkways, and mural installations.

Fun, locally inspired social distancing markers, such as this shaka, were painted throughout Kailua Elementaryʻs walkways to help keep keiki safe when they return to school.


“The reopening of school is especially stressful this year with the COVID-19 social distancing requirements, so having help with our summer cleaning and landscaping was such a gift,” Inouye added. “Partnerships like these work to strengthen our school's connections to the greater community and allow local organizations, businesses, and members of the public to learn about our school firsthand and build relationships with our students, families, and staff.”

Since Kōkua Our Schools’ inception, over 340 Team Kōkua employee volunteers and their family members have donated 2,219 hours of labor. POW! WOW! Hawai‘i artists have spent 64 hours designing and painting, and City Mill has contributed $2,500 in supplies. 

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Scores of our employees worked together to prepare Maunawili Elementary School for the Aug. 4 reopening.


“We have many employees on voluntary furlough who reached out to us to find ways to give back in their downtime,” added Nakanelua-Richards. “We have volunteers participating in school projects on O‘ahu as well as Maui and Kaua‘i. It’s encouraging to see our ‘ohana and our partners use this difficult time to mālama our school communities.”

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Team Kōkua volunteers gathered in front of Kailua Elementary School's sign.


Kōkua Our Schools is an ongoing project available to all Hawai‘i’s public schools. Principals interested in bringing the program to their campus can contact the HIDOE Community Engagement Branch at 808-305-0691 or ​​.