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Charter school co-founder looks to future after eruption

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Kua o ka La Charter School, pictured with a lava plume looming in the background, is accepting student applications for the 2018-2019 school year. The school has also set up a Disaster Relief Fund.

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Susie Osborne spoke about her former home at a roadblock on Kahukai Street during a visit to Leilani Estates on June 16. Osborne lost her home on May 25. “It’s one thing when your house is still standing. You have hope. But when it is gone everything is totally different,” said Osborne.

HILO >> Susie Osborne, head of Kua o ka La Public Charter School in Puna, lost her home the same day she celebrated the graduation of her students.

On the morning of May 25, she went to her home at Leilani Estates to retrieve some items and search for her cats. She then attended her school’s graduation ceremony, and that same afternoon a neighbor called to say her next-door neighbor’s home was on fire. Soon her own home was on fire as well.

“I feel very displaced right now,” she said. “Really displaced. I miss going home and I miss my campus.”

She had a two-bedroom home within a 15-minute drive to the charter school she helped found. It was a beautiful home, she said, with an open floor plan, high ceilings and a wraparound porch. In her garden she grew collard greens, kale, pineapples and dozens of breadfruit trees.

The first signs of impending disaster were cracks in the road outside her home at 13-334 Mohala St. the afternoon of May 3, when the first fissure opened up. She saw them after coming home from work.


Kua o ka La Charter School is accepting student applications for the 2018-2019 school year. The school has also set up a Disaster Relief Fund at kuaokala.org.

She had to evacuate May 3 but returned several times to retrieve important papers and sentimental items, and to search for her three pet cats.

So far, she has been able to find only one. Chauncey, her long-haired Himalayan cat, ran up to her, looking dazed but happy. Osborne is not sure whether Chrissy and Snowflake made it.

Although she owned the home for about five years, she has lived in Puna more than 40 years and loves the close-knit community. Puu Oo has been erupting since 1983, she said, and she lived among thousands of other residents, so she never imagined this would happen.

For the time being she feels fortunate to have found a small place to rent in Hilo after a few weeks on a friend’s couch.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about Puna and the community: so much aloha, generosity, kindness and humbleness,” she said. “Everybody’s been wonderful.”

She is staying focused on putting together a plan for the school.

With access to the school at 14-5322 Kalapana Kapoho Beach Road cut off, staff scrambled to evacuate and find new facilities to finish the school year, which wrapped up May 31. Students finished school at two locations in Hilo: the New Hope church in Waiakea for the elementary school students and the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island for the middle and high school students.

While the original school campus along the shoreline remains intact, there is no way of knowing when it will be available again. The school, however, will remain open, she said, and has committed to holding classes in Hilo for the fall.

“It’s especially important that people understand the school is open, that we’re resilient and operational,” she said. “This is so difficult on our community, and education is an important stabilizing factor. We want to stay in Hilo for next year. We committed to that, to being in Hilo.”

Osborne, 61, along with Keikialoha Kekipi, a lineal descendant of the area, co-founded Kua o ka La Public Charter School. The school opened its doors in 2002 on 600 acres of historic and cultural land owned by Kamehameha Schools near Ahalanui warm ponds.

“I built it from scratch,” said Osborne. “Design, build, everything. I put my heart and soul in the school.”

While she was able to get to the school to pick up a few things, a box of discs containing 20 years’ worth of photos and memories remains on campus. Osborne still has those photos in her heart and mind, and hopes to be able to retrieve them.

She estimates at least a third of staff and families whose kids attended that school have been displaced by the eruptions. In the last school year, there were about 230 students from preschool to grade 12. The school has a staff of about 38.

“I’m focused on the school and the future of stabilizing the community,” said Osborne.

The Hawaiian-focused charter school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and offers dual-credit classes for high school and college in the fields of forestry, agriculture, marine biology, culinary arts and digital technology.

Long-term solutions are needed for those who have been displaced, said Osborne, and she hopes to be part of a county planning commission tasked with recommending initiatives to address four sectors affected by the eruption: housing, agriculture, employment and education. She envisions a new school campus as well as a satellite college campus in a new community.

Although she is still trying to piece her life and school back together, Osborne is not angry.

The school’s guiding values include having love for one another, taking care of responsibilities, giving and receiving help, and being thankful for what one has. Those values are important to remember during challenging times.

“We teach our children all about Pele and also the geology, the science of the volcanoes,” she said. “Part of me likens it to the body. When the body has a fever and it burns off, it’s a healing time and a time of creation, also. So I see healing. I see creation and then, personally, a time for aloha and gentleness with each other. I think we need to see more of that.”

These days she is feeling more sensitive, but also more compassionate, as she recovers from the shock and rawness of the loss.

“We don’t know whether it’s from Pele or other circumstances in people’s lives,” she said. “We know that everybody has challenges in different ways. We don’t know what those challenges are, so if we can walk more gently and with aloha in life, in general, as a whole, it would be better. It’s a time to deepen empathy, compassion and aloha for each other in a very gentle way.”

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