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Hawaii students reflect on ‘Standing Together, Six Feet Apart’

                                Valor Ahn, 17, volunteered this summer for the Salvation Army, offering comfort and guidance to sometimes desperate callers seeking aid from the charity. He was one of six winners of the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission’s essay contest, “Standing Together, Six Feet Apart.”
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Valor Ahn, 17, volunteered this summer for the Salvation Army, offering comfort and guidance to sometimes desperate callers seeking aid from the charity. He was one of six winners of the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission’s essay contest, “Standing Together, Six Feet Apart.”

At a time when even adults may feel at a loss, six Hawaii teens are being honored for their inspiring essays on how they stepped up to help their community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The judges of the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission essay contest said they were heartened by the students’ submissions on the theme “Standing Together, Six Feet Apart.”

“I’m glad I had a chance to read these essays and see the potential and energy that these students have,” said Greg Nakamura, who retired last year as Third Circuit Court chief judge. “You get the sense that our future will be OK in their hands. We just have to get past the present.”

Another contest judge, Hawaii State Bar Association President P. Gregory Frey put it simply: “I was blown away.”

Take Valor Ahn, a senior at Kaimuki Christian School, for example. He didn’t want to be cooped up all summer and was looking for a sense of purpose, so he volunteered with the Salvation Army. Here’s how Ahn started his essay:

“Please … please bear with me sir,” her frail voice trembled through the phone. I set my mask to the side and scooted closer to my desk. Hearing the pain and desperation in her voice, I knew this would be no ordinary conversation.”

Ahn’s task for the Salvation Army was to call back the countless people seeking help from the charity to verify they qualified for aid. This particular caller told him she was in a care home after being hit by a van on her way to a food bank, an accident that left her immobile.

“She told me from the beginning that she was struggling with her Alzheimer’s and how she had a stuttering problem,” Ahn said in an interview Thursday. “I just made sure that she knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I was going to stick with her and get that form filled out for her. It was like a journey, that phone call. It was so heart touching.”

She scrambled to find the information he needed, each time politely asking him to hang on while she looked, hope rising in her voice when she returned to the phone.

“One hour later, I found myself on the verge of tears,” Ahn, 17, wrote in his essay. “That summer day, I felt deeply humbled, and my eyes were opened to this fact: everyone has a story, and some just need a listening ear.”

Ahn was one of six students in grades 10-12 — three from Oahu and three from the neighbor islands — named as 2020 winners in the contest. Each received $500 and their teachers received $100, with funds donated by various law firms.

Kai Mottley, an 11th grader at Kauai High School, said he felt the emotional toll of the pandemic when he learned that three young men on Kauai had committed suicide.

“I wanted to help but wasn’t sure what I could do as a teenager with no medical training,” he wrote in his essay. “I soon heard about the urgent need for face shields. Fortunately I had a 3D-printer and computer aided design (CAD) skills from classes at the Kauai Community College and Kauai High.”

He contacted Kauai Makerspace to offer his help and was asked to run four of its printers to help fill a face shield order from Hawaii Pacific Health and its hospitals.

“I gave this work my full attention for the next few months,” Mottley wrote. “I turned my garage into a factory producing face shields one after the other. This meant checking the equipment, replacing filament, troubleshooting, and creating a printing schedule since each shield took approximately five hours to print. The printers buzzed from 6 a.m. to midnight.

“I learned the value of serving my community through action — no matter how minor that action seems,” he added. “Just like ‘Rosie the Riveter’ during World War II, you don’t have to be a fighter on the frontline to make a difference.”

Another winner, Mariah Iris Ramo, a sophomore at Waipahu High School, raised funds to ensure that children in her hometown of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, Philippines have access to a stable Wi-Fi connection and a gadget to learn with during this pandemic. She also helped her peers at Waipahu High with distance learning. Over the summer she created and posted short video tutorials on Google Suite applications.

“A lot of students and educators worldwide do not have adequate resources to carry out distance learning,” she wrote. “Others do have resources but not enough guidance to utilize the applications on their gadget … . If we miss educating students for one whole year, it can cause catastrophic ripples in a decade or more,” she warned.

Josiah Richards, a senior at Makua Lani Christian Academy in Kailua-Kona, described volunteering in the kitchen at a local university to help make meals for students who were quarantined.

“I was whisked into a flurry of jobs,” he wrote. “I was everywhere at all times, packing lunches into boxes, chopping fruits and running appliances to the dish pit… I was the person who was regularly pinned with the job of sweeping, mopping and wiping down tables.

“Despite the ache of my muscles and the layers of sweat under my mask, I always responded with a yes and a smile,” he wrote. “Working there allowed me to realize that I was contributing to something greater than myself … . It put into perspective how much people can get done if they simply work together as one body.”

Emily Tom, a senior at ‘Iolani School, interned with Americans for Democratic Action over the summer, researching health care in Hawaii and elsewhere and producing a report that sketched out possible solutions to ensure access for all and reduce inequalities and inefficiencies.

“Seeing so many in my community lose their health insurance in the midst of a pandemic inspired me to search for permanent reform that would keep people from enduring the same problem again,” she wrote in her essay.

Kaitlin Kitagawa, a sophomore at King Kekaulike High School on Maui, recalled how everything changed as COVID-19 spread.

“Our lives slowed down and stopped,” she wrote. “This was certainly the case in my little world in Pukalani, Maui. All my plans for school and summer came to a screeching halt. There would be no Jazz camp, Science Olympiad competition, or volunteering through my Interact and 4-H clubs.

“Eager to get out of the house, I decided to help my parents in the only activity they were willing to leave the safety of our house for — to help with local community food distribution events,” she wrote.

“I was shocked that we had to prepare hundreds of bags. To think that each bag represented a home that needed food opened my eyes to the importance of people coming together as a team to support its community members.”

Hawaii Access to Justice Competition

2020 Essay Contest Winners

>> Valor Ahn, Kaimuki Christian School. Teacher: JoAnna Fong

>> Kaitlin Kitagawa, King Kekaulike High School. Teacher: Leaf Van Alstine

>> Kai Mottley, Kauai High School. Teacher: Kevin Johnson

>> Mariah Iris Ramo, Waipahu High School. Teacher: Rachel Domingo

>> Josiah Richards, Makua Lani Christian Academy. Teacher: Frederick Herrmann

>> Emily Tom, ‘Iolani School. Teacher: John Bickel

Each student received $500 for their winning essay with $100 for their teacher.

The awards were sponsored by the law firms of Case Lombardi & Pettit; Chong, Nishimoto, Sia, Nakamura & Goya; Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert; Ota & Hara; Schlueter Kwiat & Kennedy; and Tateishi & Tanaka.

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