Maui Arts & Entertainment

Struggling families cope with tragedy by making art and lei

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Children’s artwork. PC: Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center

A homeless shelter and art studio on Maui have partnered to give struggling families something invaluable: Peace in the face of hardship.

Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers, Inc (KHAKO) and Hui No‘eau have worked together since 2020, providing monthly Art2Go art kits for children in the program. But since KHAKO’s West Side Center was lost to the Lahaina fires, an influx of clients relocated to their Wailuku shelter. Now, Hui No‘eau members go there in person twice per week to give art activities for keiki and families in the shelter.

“Since I have been a part of this program, I have been a witness to the resilience of kids in the face of hardship and tragedy,” said teaching artist Sam Zender in an organization newsletter. “This program is a sanctuary from their ‘day-to-day’ — a place where they can come and explore making something that is their own, make a colorful mess, or just laugh because their hands are somehow covered in glitter.”


Zender said the kids are quite aware of what’s happening in their community.

“When conflict or misfortune happens to one family, emotions ripple throughout,” Zender said. “Many times, I come in and change what we are doing because the kids are responding to another family moving out. As I know they are feeling the loss of their friends, we can try and do something more lighthearted and fun. Other days, it is great to challenge them by trying a new skill.”

The homeless shelter recently spent the day making ribbon leis for Lei Day, the topic of a program spotlight in the Hui’s latest newsletter.


“It was such a triumph for these kids,” Zender said of the lei-making day. “They jumped in and asked me to demonstrate over and over and then they took off and were helping each other.”

“One of the five year olds was sitting with one of the older kids. The younger boy was struggling to understand the rhythm of ribbon weaving and the older boy responded: ‘It’s easy. It’s just like going to the beach.’ I thought that was very cool so I asked him to explain what he meant. ‘Just like going to the beach. You watch the waves.’ I found this amazing, as this particular child has often been impatient with projects that have a lot of steps or difficult details, so I loved that he found peace and quiet in ribbon weaving.”

Sam Zender, teaching artist at Hui No‘eau

Some of their parents also participated in learning how to make lei.


“One mother was sharing pictures of leis created by her Tongan relatives and was inspired to want to learn how to make leis in her family’s custom,” said Zender.

Zender said many of the kids would tell her “I can’t do that” when they started the program. Now, she says many of the kids are more comfortable and even help one another. She added that the kids also became proficient in basic motor skills as a result of the program, such as using scissors, markers and paint-brushes, which will help them in school.

“This self-assurance in their own abilities and a willingness to try new things is what I really hope they take with them,” Zender concluded.


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