Living and Spreading Aloha
At 5:00 every weekday morning, Unit 3 member Hilliary Pilialoha catches the bus from Nanakuli to her job on the Windward side. Nearly 40 miles and two hours later, she arrives at Mōkapu Elementary School on Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe Bay ready to start her day at the Transition Center.
“That's how dedicated and committed Hilliary is to our community. We’re very fortunate to have her,” said Paloma Almanza, principal of Mōkapu Elementary School and a Unit 6 member. “She works hard to help families and students assimilate here. Making them feel like they belong is her gift. She is the epitome of our vision of live Mōkapu and spread aloha. She does all of that every day.”
As the transition coordinator at Mōkapu Elementary, a Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) school and the only school on Marine Corps Base Hawaii proudly serving approximately 900 students of Marine and Navy families, Pilialoha helps newly arrived students adjust to the daunting change of moving to a new school and social environment, being a new student and learning a different culture. She said, “We not only welcome the new kids to the school, we also welcome them to the state. I want our military ohana to learn more about our culture in Hawaii and be able to take it with them when they leave for their next duty station.” A former student who left last year, Pilialoha recalled, danced hula while she was in Hawaii and “took our culture with her as she moved to Okinawa — in the long run that’s what my goal is, to make sure that we can share that aloha spirit outside of Hawaii.”
AMBASSADORS OF ALOHA
For all of these students, who are constantly moving, they may not only be facing the challenges of entering a new school but also the deployment of a parent. From the start, Pilialoha helps make it an easy transition and provides support to new students from kindergarten through sixth grade coming in throughout the year, embracing them with her warm smile and positive nature. She has assistance from her “aloha ambassadors” — 33 this year — who are students from grades 4-6 that help spread aloha on campus and in the community. They meet weekly to discuss ideas on how they can share aloha with other students through fun and engaging activities and programs. These ambassadors have a myriad of duties, which include leading new students tours; distributing welcome kits, deployments kits (for families struggling with deployment), goodbye kits (for families moving from the school) and together again kits (for when a parent returns from deployment); leading monthly group discussions and activities on various topics ranging from homework and healthy body to fear and bullying; choosing and sharing a Hawaiian word of the week; and giving back to the community through service projects.
The students love Pilialoha. Her office is a whirlwind of activity and of students before and after school, with kids full of energy and enthusiasm coming in to see her. Wanting to give her students their own voice, Pilialoha makes sure the activities, with support from staff, are led by the students and certain decisions are made by them, helping to instill leadership skills and develop student mentors.
Two aloha ambassadors, sixth graders Noah Lianez and Landry Clifton, shared some of the fun games they’ve come up with, like Local Trivia Thursday where questions are asked about Hawaiian culture and prizes are given. Lianez, who is in his third and last year as an aloha ambassador, informed us that this year the ambassadors are split up into two teams, Team Aloha and Team Imua, with each team rotating weekly on giving tours and doing activity groups. “With Ms. Hilliary’s help, we’re hoping that we can accomplish all of our goals, do more projects and have more fun this year,” he said, excitedly. Clifton is a new ambassador this year and has already led an activity group with another student. “We get together with all the new students in our school, and we teach them a lesson like on making friends,” she said. “We were all new students once and understand what it feels like.”
“The magic that Hilliary makes happen out of that small room is what caught my attention as soon as I arrived,” noted Almanza, who became principal of Mōkapu in 2018. “She provides opportunity for that student voice to be heard, and with the life skills that she’s teaching them through the programs she encourages them to soar. They feel successful and accomplished because of her. In one year’s time, their growth is phenomenal.”
Pilialoha was especially proud when Mōkapu Transition Center was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Joint Venture Education Forum, a cooperative partnership between Hawaii’s military community, HIDOE and other community organizations. She said, “Three students from our school spoke and shared about what makes our school unique. I was so proud to be recognized.”
CREATIVE AND COMMITTED
With most of her family being teachers or administrators, Pilialoha said that “education has always been a part of who I am so it’s a perfect fit for me to be working in a school.” She eventually wants to obtain a college degree in education and Hawaiian studies. After working for several private companies, Pilialoha started at Mōkapu Elementary as an office assistant in 2016, handling registrations. When the Mōkapu Transition Center was established in January 2017, she did double duty as registration clerk and Transition Center lead until October 2018 when she was able to give her full focus to the Transition Center.
Pilialoha’s genuine commitment to her students and the school is evident through the hard work she puts in every day. In addition to supporting students who are transitioning in and out of the school and between grade levels, she helps out in the front office, attends monthly School Community Council meetings and serves as an accountable lead on Mōkapu’s Academic Review Team. She was instrumental in starting two Girls Who Code clubs for girls in grades 3-5 and grade 6. Pilialoha and the school’s technology teacher run the free afterschool program, which explores coding in a fun and friendly environment and whose mission is to close the gender gap in technology.
With her creative spirit and networking skills, Pilialoha finds ways to bring numerous opportunities to the school and acquire much needed grant money. Last year Mōkapu was awarded a $13,000 grant through a transition center initiative with HIDOE, Hawaii 3Rs and Military Affairs Council, in honor of the late Congressman K. Mark Takai, who was a supporter of military-dependent students throughout his career and who had secured tens of millions in annual federal Impact Aid funding for public schools. With some of the money, Pilialoha bought supplies, arts and crafts equipment, and picnic tables for added seating space outside her office, and had a sleepover with students at Bishop Museum.
In September, she coordinated the school’s first-ever beach cleanup, partnering with Matson and its Ka Ipu ‘Aina (Container for the Land) program, along with the Marine Corps Base Hawaii Environmental Department and Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and received a $1,000 grant. “About 100 people showed up on a Sunday at North Beach,” Pilialoha marveled. Matson had never partnered with the military on base. “Imagine the logistics of getting a Matson container on a restricted base,” she said, chuckling. “But it was awesome and rewarding.”
Pilialoha has even taken her students to HĀ summits where they were the only kids in attendance. With a foundation in Hawaiian values, language, culture and history, Nā Hopena A‘o (HĀ) draws from the uniqueness of Hawaii with a framework of outcomes reflecting the DOE’s core values and beliefs in action throughout the public educational system of Hawaii — to strengthen a sense of Belonging, Responsibility, Excellence, Aloha, Totalwellbeing and Hawaii (BREATH) in ourselves, students and others. Pilialoha explained, “We know that there are things on our campus that we already do that are part of this, and they’re just putting a framework to it. It’s our way of having the kids learn about our culture.”
All of this and more is due solely to Pilialoha, an HGEA steward and chair of Next Wave on Oahu as well as an active American Cancer Society volunteer. She gets some ideas from other schools with transition centers, such as Radford High School, Pearl Harbor Elementary School and Kalaheo High School, but most are her own and customized for Mōkapu Elementary School. “She takes initiative to create opportunities for aloha to be present at our school,” added Almanza, admiring Pilialoha’s ability to easily connect with people. “There are many other military-impacted schools with transition programs, but I believe ours is very unique because of Hilliary.”
Ever so humble, Pilialoha doesn’t like to take all the credit, saying the success of the Mōkapu Transition Center is a collective effort, from the unwavering support of Almanza and school faculty and staff to students and their families. It is positively her students that motivate her to make the daily trek from Nanakuli to Marine Corps Base Hawaii. “I love my job. I love my kids. They rock,” she said, with a huge smile. “I love seeing that I’ve made a difference in my students’ life through spreading the aloha spirit.”