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Rise Up and Rise Above: Resilience After the Maui Wildfires

Guest author Ruffy Landayan is a teaching artist with the Educational Theatre initiative.

In August 2023, a series of wildfires ravaged parts of Maui. Sadly, more than 100 people lost their lives, over 7,000 were displaced, and 2,200 of the area’s structures were destroyed. As the smoke cleared, and the ashes settled, you couldn’t help but empathize with everyone who was affected. How does a town, an island, and a state recover from a traumatic moment like this? There isn’t one answer. It’s a process that takes time and effort. But resilience, often described as the ability to endure or bounce back from difficulties, lies at the heart of this process.

Months later, Kaiser Permanente Thriving Schools sent the Educational Theatre RISE UP (Resilience in School Environments Understanding and Practice) team to Oahu and Maui to help build resilience in the communities. I was lucky enough to be a part of this team. We spent almost two weeks serving these communities, providing tools and teaching students and adults how they could build even more resilience than they were already showing.

Educational Theatre’s mission is to educate and inspire individuals and communities to make more informed decisions about their health by engaging in arts-based storytelling and activating human connection.

After our week in Oahu where we held workshops at the Schools of the Future conference, Capitol Modern, and Kaneohe Elementary School, we made our way to Maui.

“A participant told me she is a school therapist who works with students whose families are in the military. She said she has been having an unusually challenging time with one student and has been feeling stressed about not knowing how to help him. Watching the theatrical scenes in the workshop involving a teacher and a student, gave her the same feeling she has when dealing with her student. Our workshop inspired her to find a way to regulate and ground herself while working with the student and gave her a new idea, to try drumming with the student and see if he responds well to expressing himself that way.  She says she will reach out to booking to invite us to work with her students. She believes it will help!”

-Billoah Greene, Teaching Artist

Our first stop was at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, where we connected with educators and faculty from the Maui school district to help them cope with their own grief and loss, while they are responsible for supporting and nurturing Maui’s children.

“The most impactful moment for me was when a teacher mentioned that she sees 400 students a day and that she would be integrating all these regulation tools with her students – by reaching one we have reached many.”

– Joseph Zavala, Teaching Artist

During our “An Arts Based Approach to Stress Awareness and Regulation” workshop, we used drums and theater to regulate stress, deepen breath and connection, build community, and engage in reframing our thoughts and habits. A local artist and performer generously lent us her collection of drums, a moving and special gesture that enhanced the experience.

What originated as a 90-min session turned into more than two hours of sharing and talking. (Two of the guests were teachers and musicians who brought some of their own instruments to the event and showed us how to play the ipu, making for an even more memorable experience!) Every single teacher we encountered made it a point to stop and make eye contact with us, always sharing a warm and genuine smile.

“I think we all can relate to being so stressed, you know with being a mother, doing all those errands, cooking, cleaning, picking up the kids, it’s almost too much with work, how is this even possible for anyone not to get stressed? I am glad you all were here, it was a very good program, and we need it here in Maui.”

– Maui school counselor 

Our journey continued to Lahaina, the area most affected by the wildfires. As we drove through winding roads with sugar plantations to our right and the blue ocean and azure sky to our left, we had to go through some tunnels. One entryway held spray-painted messages of resilience: “We are Lahaina strong.” We felt a shift in energy as we got closer to Lahaina Intermediate School.

Here we held our last sessions, including a “Resilience Workshop” for students, using drum exercises to foster community and resilience.

“In one workshop a timid teenage girl sat next to me. When we asked the students to group share, she passed each time. However, she would whisper each answer loud enough for me to hear. I asked her if she wanted to go into the center to play the drum and she said no. The next day she was in our workshop again…this time when we asked questions, she answered them to the group. During the second workshop that day, she stayed after to talk with us facilitators. We found out she is a dancer at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and she even showed us some of her dancing. How lucky we were to observe her progression, and the trust that she built with us over the two days.”

– Johanna Auxais, Teaching Artist

World renowned marine life artist Wyland once said, “Hawaii changes your DNA.” It is true, from the first moments we landed in Oahu to the moment we took off from Maui, we deeply felt this vast depth of transformation within.

Our entire team is forever changed, and in deep gratitude for this amazing once in a lifetime experience. The impact of the people and seeing the remnants of what the wildfires did to the community in Maui is forever imprinted in our hearts and minds. During an affirmation exercise we did with the children, they came up with the phrase “We will rise up, we will rise above.” We couldn’t agree more.

Lahaina strong. Maui strong. Be KP. Mahalo.

 A special thank you to everyone involved, including our community partners, Kaiser Permanente staff in Hawaii and California, and our team on the ground: Program Supervisor Shanna Beauchamp-Hill, Community Health Consultant Vivian Pham, and Teaching Artists Johanna Auxais, Billoah Greene, and Joseph Zavala.

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