- Special Projects
LIHUE, Kauai — The approximately 700 teens graduating from high school on Kauai this year won’t do so unnoticed because of canceled commencements, lockdowns that have cut their access to friends and uncertainties over college or career plans.
Instead, organized by a North Shore musical instrument store, two other business partners and Life’s Bridges, a local social services organization that specializes in grief counseling and suicide prevention, each senior will eventually receive a ukulele and a graduation cap.
If they don’t get to walk across a stage to pick up their diplomas, they can at least strum a song and look dressed for commencement.
The project is planned to reach all graduating seniors, including those at all three public high schools on island, charter schools, private schools and possibly even kids who have been homeschooled. Although at least one of them, Waimea High School, pulled together an ad hoc graduation ceremony, many seniors will experience no such observance this year.
The concern about seniors not having a normal graduation experience extends across the island. In places as diverse as Princeville, Kilauea, Kapaa and Lihue, the number of signs congratulating seniors have increased exponentially. Such banners — some spray painted primitively on bed sheets and others produced by professional graphic artists — have always been hung, but this year appears to be different.
More than 100 of the banners have been hung on one short section of highway near the county civic center complex here. The line is a quarter mile long.
The ukulele and graduation cap concept was originated by Tora and Kirk Smart, owners of Hanalei Strings, which sells ukuleles, guitars, other stringed instruments and music supplies. Like virtually every business on Kauai, the store had been shut down for about two months before reopening last week.
Even with the reopening, Tora Smart said, Hanalei Strings faces a marketing dilemma. Sales plummeted from 20 to 30 instruments a week to none because the vast majority of their customers are tourists.
More than that, though, Tora Smart said, she and Kirk were painfully aware of the disappointment many high school age teens face when they realize that things like senior week, signing yearbooks, taking group pictures, ditch day, graduation and going off to college or finding first jobs are rites that, in the year of COVID-19, they may be denied.
Smart comes from a musical family. Her father was a jazz musician. Her mother was a member of Ace of Cups, an all-woman San Francisco rock band that came to prominence in 1967 playing concert venues with the likes of Jimi Hendrix.
The band folded after a couple of years and Smart’s mother, Denise Kaufman, ended up teaching music at Island School here. The band was inactive for decades, but then in 2016, four of the members — all by then in their 70s — decided to reform and record their very first ever album. The recording was a hit and the band is still performing.
Smart said she got to thinking about how to join music and celebration of graduation in at least a modest way. She said she made an “Is this crazy?” phone call to a friend who works for a credit union.
The friend suggested Smart contact Gina Kaulukukui, who runs Life’s Bridges, a small nonprofit based in Lihue that works in grief counseling and suicide prevention.
Kaulukukui loved the idea. She said Life’s Bridges had been searching for ways to help blunt the different kind of grief brought about by COVID-19, lockdowns, fear, joblessness and vanishing incomes.
“We’re trying to get out to the community that we’re all grieving,” she said.
“People are in a challenging time. Your senior year was about going to prom and graduating. It was like the best year of your life. These are all things these kids can’t normally do right now. Doing it virtually is not the same. They still can’t get hugged.”
That, Kaulukukui said, was where the ukulele idea came from.
“We realized what a wonderful Hawaiian tradition it would be to give to these kids,” she said. “We can create something for them that reminds them of the Hawaiian culture.”
Even if an individual senior doesn’t play an instrument, she said, “maybe they’d want to learn. They will have this lasting memory that reminds them of their resilience.”
The Smarts identified a ukulele that could work in the program. It normally retails for just over $100. But working with CG Custom Prints and GradKap.com, a package was quickly put together that includes the ukulele and a graduation cap for a requested donation of $55.
Lani Alo, a Kapaa High School senior, said the ukulele-cap project will help neutralize some of the disappointment she and her classmates have experienced.
“I know it’s not anyone’s fault,” she said. “It’s just sad because you watch graduation for your first three years and you realize you can’t have that same experience. I’m very thankful to everyone that cares about us.”
Alo said she planned to attend California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, but it’s still not clear if there will be a normal fall term there. She said she thinks it’s important that the college experience not be watered down.
Jackson Gamby, an Island School senior, said her intended college, Lewis and Clark in Oregon, is giving incoming freshman until August to withdraw.
“If they go to online classes,” she said, “for me personally, I would end up deferring. I just think I wouldn’t get the full college experience.”
For both Alo and Gamby, the ukulele and graduation cap gift is more than a gesture.
“I can play a little bit,” Gamby said.
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