Jon Kimoto, counselor for Grades K-2, poses for a photo with his māhele lalo haumāna he accompanies on the bus from Lahaina.
The decision for some Lahaina parents to send their young keiki back to Kamehameha Schools Maui in the wake of the devastating wildfires was difficult and largely relied on two factors, or in this case, two people.
The presence of Jon Kimoto, counselor for Grades K-2, and bus driver Bob Kandra gave parents much-needed peace of mind to have their keiki make the long trip from Lahaina up to the ʻAʻapueo campus.
“We knew our Lahaina parents were nervous about being separated from their children, especially when they were still worried about access in and out of West Maui,” said Leo Delatori, KS Maui dean of student support services. “But when they found out that Jon and Bob were going to be on the bus, they felt like it was going to be okay.”
Around 30 haumāna from kindergarten to 12th grade typically ride the bus to school each day from Lahaina, but in the aftermath of the wildfires it had been reduced to just four students, including only one from māhele lalo (lower division, grades K-5). When school reopened on Aug. 17, many of the families lost their homes and vehicles in the disaster.
Kimoto, who lives in Waikapū, said Delatori approached him and asked if he would be willing to ride the bus with the māhele lalo haumāna to help ease parents’ anxiety.
“I said no problem,” Kimoto said. “During this traumatic and catastrophic time, having a familiar face made our Lahaina parents feel just a little better. On that first Thursday, I literally teared up and was hugging the parents. It’s been very emotional for everyone.”
With that passion for keiki as a source of energy, Kimoto wakes up at 4:45 a.m. to meet the bus at Ma‘alaea before picking up his Lahaina haumāna. Po‘o māhele lalo Dr. Yann Lussiez said Kimoto’s energetic and warm personality naturally draws in haumāna, which was welcomed by the one māhele lalo student who returned to campus.
“The student said it was the greatest day of his life as they rode back to Lahaina together,” Lussiez said.
Kimoto deferred credit to Kandra.
“Mr. Bob – he’s such an awesome guy, though” Kimoto said. “I know he was very good, but I got to see him in action.”
Kandra, affectionately known as “Mr. Bob” by haumāna, has been driving the Lahaina route for the past seven years for KS Maui. As news initially hit about the wildfires, he began reaching out to his riders and their parents to see if they were safe.
Bob Kandra, known as "Mr. Bob" to his Lahaina haumāna bus riders, helped raise over $4,000 for KS Maui 'ohana directly impacted by the wildfires.
“When it first happened, it was devastating not knowing whether the kids were alive,” he said.
Kandra quickly started his own fundraiser to financially assist his riders and their ‘ohana, raising over $4,000 for families. He said he has most of the parents’ cell phone numbers and talks with several of them daily.
“They’re like my kids…they are my kids,” he said. “I had to become a parent on the bus. I love my Lahaina parents.”
As some of the Lahaina haumāna enjoyed their lunch during their first full week back to school on Monday, Aug. 21, they raved about traveling with Kimoto and Kandra.
“My mom said I’m not going to ride the bus unless Mr. Bob is driving,” one haumāna said.
While students welcomed the presence of the two kane on their commute, it was the bus itself that provided the most excitement. The 25-passenger Akina motorcoach, which haumāna refer to as the ‘Limobus’, transports Lahaina commuters and is fitted with air conditioning, reclining seats and monitors.
“You should’ve seen their faces,” Kandra said. “One of the boys thought he was a movie star. He was in heaven. These kids deserve it.”
Kandra anticipates more haumāna will resume riding the bus as ‘ohana move further along the road to recovery. About 15 rode the bus on the Monday after reopening.
“It’s very humbling to work with these families and to have their trust,” he said. “These are my kids and I love them.”
Kimoto said their role is to be the salt and kukui nut for haumāna and parents, referencing a recent training provided to KS Maui kumu and staff by Danny Goya, strategic analyst for Kamehameha Schools and a trauma-informed care trainer for the Community Resilience Initiative. Kimoto handed out small bags of salt and a kukui nut to all māhele lalo staff as a reminder for the weeks and months ahead.
“Salt preserves, adds flavor and heals,” Kimoto said. “The kukui nut guides, uncovers and provides hope. He (Goya) is talking about light. We have to provide the light and hope for our ‘ohana.”
Kimoto handed out bags with salt and kukui nut to māhele lalo staff to serve as a reminder that they are the light and hope for haumāna in their return to campus following the Maui wildfires.
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