By Brian Perry
LAHAINA, Hawaii (OSV News) — Members of the close-knit community of Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina are coming together, in faith, in the wake of another disaster.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic forced families into isolation and homebound students into virtual classes. Then, as they regrouped and opened their doors for a new academic year, the raging Lahaina firestorm on the island of Maui left ruins of their historic Catholic school and their extended family.
“During COVID, we really had to pull together,” said principal Tonata Lolesio.
The school remodeled its facilities to keep the fast-spreading virus at bay. Staff made extensive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended changes on the 160-year-old school campus — like contactless restroom facilities — to accommodate safe, in-person learning.
“We put our heart and soul, blood and sweat into making sure the school was ready for kids to return,” Lolesio added in an interview with the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.
Humanities teacher Yvette Richard said: “A nice thing about a small school like ours is that everybody knows everyone. So every teacher knows every kid. It felt like a very safe place to go to school.”
Just as the school started to regain its rhythm, disaster struck again. The wildfire that swept through Lahaina and claimed at least 115 lives, also wiped out more than 2,200 buildings.
“It’s one thing that we lost our school, but we also lost our second ohana (family),” Lolesio said.
Hundreds of people were reported missing in the days following the Aug. 8-9 fires. By early September the number was 385 but on Sept. 8, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said that the number of missing has dropped to 66.
Even as firefighters worked to fully contain the blaze, the school’s teachers were given two tasks: First, make sure all children and their families are safe and accounted for; and second, see how many would be returning to school, despite the loss of their campus.
Lolesio prayed and endured days of anxiety not knowing the fate of the school’s children and their families. She also was kept in the dark by power outages and fire-damaged cellphone communications.
Eventually, her prayers were answered. Everyone was found — safe and accounted for.
Then, “we have a handful of teachers and staff members who have lost their homes,” she said. “So I told them, ‘Do not be afraid if you feel you need time to care for yourself and your family. I just need to know the direction we’re going to go in, and they overwhelmingly said, ‘We’re staying. The kids need us.’”
Richard credited her fellow teachers and staff members with making personal sacrifices for the school’s survival.
“It has been inspiring watching the teachers and staff come together to keep our school going through all this,” she said. “Since we do not have classrooms yet, teachers have been storing their classroom supplies, donated to them, in their cars.”
The teachers’ commitment to Sacred Hearts School and their students’ welfare is only the beginning of what will be a long journey toward recovery.
“I feel like part of the healing and rebuilding of West Maui has to begin with our children,” Lolesio said. “They really are the hope for the future of our parish and Lahaina town. We have a long way to recovery, restoring our traditions, our legacies, our history, and we need the youth, especially the youth who have had so much taken away from them during COVID.”
At the beginning of this school year, Sacred Hearts School’s enrollment was at capacity at 220 students. Then, after the fire, it was reduced to around 120 returning students. Some students who did not return found refuge in other schools on Maui or even on Oahu, the Big Island and the mainland.
To continue serving students and families who’ve decided to stay, the school implemented a hybrid, rotating schedule and temporarily relocated to Sacred Hearts Mission Church in Kapalua.
“Parent volunteers and Knights of Columbus helped prepare the church property adjacent to the mission church to expand our makeshift school,” the principal said.
With West Maui public schools unable to reopen, Sacred Hearts School has taken on 100 new students. Another 180 are on a waiting list.
The continuity offered by the school’s current temporary location is providing crucial stability for children and families navigating the aftermath of the fire.
The school has been constantly adjusting its structure to better fit the students. As they progress, lower elementary grades K-2 will be moving to a new structure on one side of the Sacred Hearts Mission and transitioning to a five-day school week.
“Upper elementary grades 3-5, and middle school grades 6-8 will be transitioning into a hybrid format for the next few months. They will alternate between an in-person and distance-learning schedule,” said Lolesio.
While the students are adapting to the changes, rebuilding the school in Lahaina is in the works with the help of the Diocese of Honolulu. In the meantime, Lolesio and her teachers are working with everything they have to encourage the students to keep moving forward.
For some parents, their financial struggle leaves little or no money for school tuition. It’s a cost that Lolesio said the school is trying its best to overcome, seeking donations to go toward tuition assistance, “especially for those students whose family experienced a total loss,” said Lolesio.
Support for the school has been coming in from all directions. Thanks to donors, students have all the materials necessary to continue their education, including iPads and Chromebook laptops.
Chaplain Tony Dickey of Disaster & Victim Services has helped students process their emotions. During assemblies, the simple act of passing around a teddy bear has become a source of comfort.
“Chaplain Tony said that when you feel like you’re going to let tears come out of your eyes, it’s like medicine for your heart,” Lolesio said. “And one of the kids spoke up and said, ‘Oh yes, you know I saw my Mom and Dad cry so much,’ and it was just heartbreaking.”
Simply having children in school helps them process their feelings about the fire and its aftermath, she said.
“They really don’t know how to express how they feel about what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced and been through,” she said. “So, it helps having a safe place with people who can be there for them and help them open up and speak about it.”
Richard said a teacher overheard returning students say: “‘Oh, I lost my home.’ ‘Oh, me too.’ It’s like they’re just learning how to process, but they’re not alone anymore. They have each other.”
Amid the challenges faced by the school community, support has poured in, and the school’s website, shsmaui.org, has become a platform for those willing to help.
“The generosity is overwhelming, not just here in West Maui, but from the entire island, the state and the country,” Lolesio said. “It’s amazing and really a blessing.”
For Lolesio, the fire has been transformative, not only in its impact on the school and its staff and families, but on her spirituality.
“My relationship with the Lord has deepened, absolutely,” she said. “I feel that the work I’m doing is according to his will and his plans for my life at this time, and I’m grateful for it.”
As the community of Lahaina navigates its way ahead, Sacred Hearts School community is showing how people of faith can sustain each other, even in times of great adversity.
Lolesio said she has seen much grief and pain in the fire’s wake, but God will provide, she said. The way to heal is to rebuild.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were full of suffering and sorrow, but joy as well, she said.
“It’s our story too. It’s our life journey to understand that and to live out our faith as best we can in the work that we do to serve others.”
Brian Perry writes for the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu. Contributing to this story was Jennifer Rector, a staff reporter at the newspaper.