Lahaina’s children and their families, uprooted by wildfires, grapple with an unknown future


(NEW YORK) — In a normal year, the young students at Lahaina’s King Kamehameha III Elementary School would be entering their second month of classes.

Now, all that’s left is a gray hazmat zone filled with the sorrow of what has been lost.

The school, which served around 650 preschool to fifth-graders in the historic West Maui town, burnt down in the wildfires that ravaged the community last month, killing at least 115 people and displacing thousands more.

For Lahaina’s youngest residents – its “keiki” – the fire has completely uprooted their daily routines. They are processing the disaster while dealing with destroyed homes, missing family members and classmates among the deceased.

Myles Verrastro, 6, was about to start his first-grade year at King Kamehameha III, but now his school, along with his home, lie in ashes. Myles and his mom Sarah are sheltered in a hotel just outside of Lahaina.

“I don’t know where we’re going after this. My mom might not find a place after this. We only get a month here,” Myles told ABC News.

Sarah Verrastro managed to get Myles into a new technical school through a lottery, although the makeshift school has not yet been set up.

“They need resources. They need staff,” Verrastro told ABC News. “They need a larger location eventually, if they’re going to accommodate kids that are displaced from the local school. A lot of us don’t know long-term and nor can we even really think long-term. We’re thinking short-term.”

Myles is one of the lucky children of Lahaina, as thousands of students are still without a school.

Only 1,652 of the 3,000 children from Lahaina have been enrolled in other public schools or distance learning on the island, according to the Hawaii Department of Education.

Ruben Brillantes and his large extended family are all still living in a two-bedroom space far from home just to be near the children’s new schools. There are 27 people who live there, with only one bathroom, Brillantes said.

On weekends, the family travels to the Royal Lahaina resort and two other hotels in West Maui. Brillantes says his 7-year-old nephew Kurt is struggling with being away from home.

“I want everything to be the same in Lahaina, and I miss my school. Or I just miss my friends, that’s all,” Kurt told ABC News.

An emotional Brillantes says there were nine or 10 kids from the neighborhood who used to play on their street every afternoon.

“They can’t do that anymore,” Brillantes said.

On his days off, Brillantes drops off the children at three different schools across the island.

“I’ve got to be tough because if I’m going to be weak, then my kids is going to be weak, too. So yeah, I don’t know. Just be strong every day, all day, every day,” Brillantes said.

Three of the four schools damaged in the Lahaina fire may reopen in mid-October, pending environmental tests.

For Brillantes, schools opening back up raises new concerns about what’s to come.

“When schools open up, I don’t know what’s going to happen because we might get kicked out at my working place. They’re still only allowing us to stay over there until October 31, I think. After that, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” Brillantes said.

For now, more than 100 of the displaced students are attending Sacred Hearts, one of the few Lahaina schools that is open. After two of its three buildings were destroyed by the fire, principal Tonata Lolesio created a makeshift school in a church just north of Lahaina.

More than half of Lolesio’s 220 students are new to Sacred Hearts after their public schools were damaged in the fire, with 180 more on the waiting list.

Lolesio’s goal is to provide stable learning for the keiki – now the last generation of what was once Lahaina.

“They lost their first home, we had to restore their second home, and because they are the future and our hope for our rebuilding and healing, this is the best we could do for now until we secure a new school here,” Lolesio said.

Dean Wong, head of Imua Family Services, explains the magnitude of this tragedy on children, not just in Lahaina, but all of Maui.

“This is absolutely a trauma. I’m traumatized. You know, something that was here that was a part of our life doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s just gone. It’s demolished, devastated,” Wong said. “And the pictures of everything – that is also traumatizing. And all of us want to process that differently. Each of us, you and I, as individuals, process trauma and grief, loss, things differently. And that’s true with children as well.”

For the keiki all around the island, going back to school has no precedent or timeline. The process has been slow, but families who spoke to ABC News say they’ve already been through the worst.

Back at Sacred Hearts, Lolesio stresses how important children are to the future of the island and its cultures.

“They know the stories of Lahaina before it burnt down. They know our history, our traditions, and our legacies,” she said.

ABC News’ Stephanie Wash and Emily Lippiello contributed to this report.


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