Honolulu Star Advertiser | November 17, 2019
By N.T. Arévalo, Special to the Star-Advertiser
Punana Leo o Lahaina Preschool director Karyn Kanekoa of Honokohau Valley made a commitment to educating her children through the Hawaiian language. The preschool opened in 2016 with 14 families and is now expanding with four teachers and 24 families.
An ‘olelo Hawaii — Hawaiian language — preschool has opened along Lahaina Harbor, largely thanks to the advocacy and work of parents such as Karyn Kanekoa of Honokohau Valley. The director of the Punana Leo o Lahaina preschool, Kanekoa began her Hawaiian language journey over a decade ago when she and her husband committed to educating their children through the Hawaiian language.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy and would take a lot of commitment, sacrifice and dedication,” Kanekoa, 35, says. “What I didn’t know was that it would be a lifestyle that I’m so very grateful to be living today.”
Two of her children were already in an immersion program at Nahi’ena’ena Elementary. For her youngest at the time, she applied for Punana Leo o Maui preschool, part of a unique Hawaiian immersion program run by families statewide. The program, however, was all the way in Wailuku.
“Little did I know, that decision would change our lives forever,” she says.
As Kanekoa took on her own language classes at the college — after first studying with Lahaina’s Liko Rogers — and began the commute for herself and her preschooler, she came across like-minded parents committed to changing opportunities on the west side. She and four other mothers worked to return an immersion preschool to Lahaina.
The more the parents were told no, the harder they pressed on, securing licenses and specially trained teachers.
“Being a preschool teacher myself for over eight years in Lahaina, I saw the importance of this program and knew we needed this in Lahaina for our families, especially being that we had a growing Hawaiian immersion program in our small, tight-knit community,” Kanekoa says.
Punana Leo o Lahaina opened in 2016 for 14 families. The program is now expanding, with four teachers and 24 families.
Kula Kaiapuni o Lahainaluna was also recently established, allowing students of any ethnicity the opportunity to be educated in Hawaiian from preschool through high school — and all in one district, a rarity on the islands.
Kanekoa credits the support and faith of her community in seeing it through. They credit her persistence.
“Karyn puts herself out there in our community in ways that go unnoticed, but the impact she has is immense,” says Jen Mather, a fellow parent, executive assistant for Maui County an administrator at Wailoa Church.
Kanekoa is a board member for the the West Maui Preservation Association and helped create the nonprofit Na Mamo Aloha ‘Aina o Honokohau, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the Honokohau Stream, lo’i, and cultural sites. She also serves as a parent representative for ‘Aha Kauleo, a statewide advisory board on Hawaiian immersion programs through the state Department of Education.
“Karyn is one of a handful of people in West Maui strengthening our lahui (people) by teaching preschoolers ‘olelo Hawaii and she’s committed to all of the behind-the-scenes work it entails,” Councilmember Tamara Paltin of Napili says.
Paltin shared how Kanekoa hosted a workday at her home for 35 community organizations from E Alu Pu, a network across Hawaii working to nurture the skills and resources needed to take care of the land for generations to come. They turned Kanekoa’s yard — where water hadn’t flowed in 100 years — into a lo’i, a ready taro field, within three hours.
“So glad my kids were there to work and see it all happen,” says Kanekoa, moved by the community effort. “I’m so blessed and proud to be raising my keiki in this place we love.”
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