Catherine Toth Fox: A Plant Nursery In Kaimuki Is Helping Students With Disabilities Find Jobs - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

For the past decade, a resource teacher has helped hundreds of students gain vocational skills through their work at the nursery.

The alarm on Linda Maeda-Lee’s iPhone went off. “Break is over,” she said. “Back to work.”

Without hesitation, seven high school students, all clad in long pants and covered shoes, got up and dispersed across the 2-acre plant nursery in Kaimuki. One scooped peat moss into containers, another pulled weeds in potted plants, another cut PVC pipes.

Maeda-Lee, a resource teacher for the state Department of Education, pointed to a dry-erase board that listed the names of her students and the duties they were assigned that day.

“If they can read, they can read,” she explained. “And if they can’t, we help them.”

Over the past decade, she has worked with hundreds of students with disabilities who attended public high schools in the Honolulu district at this nursery on 22nd Avenue.

These students, who range in age from 13 to 21, learn a variety of work-related skills, from installing sprinklers to propagating plants. Beyond that, Maeda-Lee added, the students are getting valuable work experience that we often take for granted: showing up on time, working with others, following directions.

She even teaches the older, more independent ones how to catch the bus to the nursery from their schools and homes, showing them how to download and use the city’s DaBus2 app on their phones.

“I know every single route from every single school in this district,” she said.

There’s not a lot of information out there about the Honolulu District Plant Nursery — and, in some ways, Maeda-Lee likes to keep it that way. She doesn’t like talking about herself or the tremendous work she’s done in the special education realm for the past 28 years with the DOE. She also doesn’t like to talk about the 18 years she spent with McDonald’s of Hawaii, where she recruited and trained adults with disabilities and seniors. To her, it’s no big deal.

“The goal is for these kids to be community contributors,” Maeda-Lee said. “That’s the bottom line. I’ll take them as far as they can go.”

Many of her students have found employment after working with Maeda-Lee — one is at Chick-fil-A at Ala Moana Center, another is at Teddy’s Bigger Burger. Some even live independently.

One of her students recently got married, she said, a huge smile spreading across her face. “That kid, he always comes to find me,” she said.

Linda Maeda-Lee Kaimuki nursery Catherine Toth Fox column
Linda Maeda-Lee helps Brandon Patton, a 21-year-old student at Kaiser High School, cut PVC pipes at the Kaimuki nursery. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

Brandon Patton, a 21-year-old senior at Kaiser High School, has been working at the nursery for two years. (Or, “too long,” he joked.) He can do just about everything now, from cutting PVC pipes to installing irrigation.

“I learn everything from my boss (Maeda-Lee),” said Patton, who takes the bus to the nursery. “She helps me a lot. She’s awesome.”

Maeda-Lee and her students have built an impressive nursery operation. The greenhouse holds dozens of beautiful areca palms, which district public schools can borrow for May Day and graduation events. Next to that is a transplant area, where students put seedlings in larger pots. Next to that is a misting area where the kids learn how to use clippers to prune and propagate plants.

“If something grows,” Maeda-Lee said, “that’s a bonus.”

The hot house has smaller palms, orchids, water lilies and air plants. She proudly showed me a tray of Hawaiian chili pepper seedlings they started from seeds. “These are the winnahs,” she said.

And just outside of that are tables she and her students built lined with 75 ulu (breadfruit) trees in pots, which will be donated to various district schools to plant on Arbor Day. Several dozen DOE teachers will spend the day here learning how to care for them.

We walked to the south end of the property, where she showed me several fruiting papaya large watermelon trees she grew from seeds (from a papaya one of her educational assistants had for lunch) and the area where she wants to grow banana trees.

In another part of the nursery were four aquaponics systems. Tanks were teeming with tilapia and grow beds with tomatoes, green onions and lettuce.

The students harvest the lettuce and tomatoes, then join Chin Nyean Lee, a specialist with the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, in making Chinese chicken salad for lunch.

“This is for the students,” Maeda-Lee said, “so they eat what they grow.”

The nursery gets its funding from the DOE, but Maeda-Lee also relies on donations and community support. (She, like a lot of public school teachers, often spends her own money.) She sells her plants — dozens of Songs of India, bougainvillea, plumeria, ti, lauae ferns — to anyone who wants to buy them. All of the money she earns from these sales goes back into the program.

Linda Maeda-Lee Kaimuki nursery Catherine Toth Fox
Linda Maeda-Lee sells plants to the public; the proceeds support the program. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

Running the nursery and the work-study program for students with disabilities is not all Maeda-Lee does. Because she specializes in community-based instruction for the DOE, she also provides support for the 64 schools in the Honolulu district. Between that and running a nursery, she said she works every day, all day.

“The only time I’m not here,” she said, “is when I’m on a plane to Vegas.”

This program has real-life benefits for students with disabilities, while helping to increase and improve the labor force in the islands.

The kind of skills Maeda-Lee teaches — as specialized as installing irrigation and as simple as tidying up workspace — are things all students should learn. How many teenagers do you know — or adults for that matter — who can repair a roof on a greenhouse or use a PVC pipe cutter?

Whenever I asked her about the students, she would call them over and have them talk directly to me.

“What is your job today?” she asked one of her students. “Turn around and look at her.”

“Organizing pieces,” he answered firmly.

“Yes, organizing PVC pieces. Very good,” she said. The boy smiled.

“I’ll take anybody and everybody who will come, no matter what,” Maeda-Lee said about the kinds of students who enroll in this program. She said there is no disability she can’t work with — and no disability that will limit any student, in her mind.

“I do it for the kids, bottom line. It’s not what they can or cannot do. It’s why. I start them way up here,” she added, raising her hand as high as she could, “then work down. These kids are sharp … The goal is to see them succeed, whatever success means to them. The sky’s the limit.”

Programs like these shouldn’t be rare — they should be in every district, in every school. They support not only the students but our communities, too.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

How does one support this nursery? I've gone by during the posted hours and the gate is always locked. Called the number, and it's out of order.

fiona · 2 months ago

Wonderful story about a wonderful woman!

Bothrops · 2 months ago

Will stop by soon to buy some plants. Lovely teacher and program. Thank you very much for writing this article.

Vigilauntie · 3 months ago

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