Final harvestKEKAHA, Kauai -- His brown kapa-print aloha shirt hangs loosely on his boy-size frame while a magnetic doodling toy showing kid-like scribbles dangles from his hand.
Mill closures also affect
the smallest members of the
community -- the children
of laid-off workers
By Crystal Kua
Kekaha Elementary Principal Billi Smith scrunches her face, looks at the sniffling lad and asks, "Isaac, are you feeling less sad?"
A nod and the boy is soon on his way back to class.
The adversity faced by children at this West Kauai school during the past decade has taken many forms -- natural disasters, economic hard times, or a rotten start to the morning like Isaac encountered.
"Trauma and tragedy are nothing new. We all go through it individually as humans and as families, but when you collectively come together you build strength and that's the value of this place," Smith said.
But the closing of Amfac sugar operations, including the Kekaha Sugar Mill, is seen as a new hardship for schoolchildren and their families.
"We've been through (Hurricane) Iniki, we've been through tsunami evacuations, we've been through safety things -- this is no different, the process is the same," Smith said "But I think in the long run it's going to be really junk."
Kekaha Elementary has 287 students -- 40 percent Ilocano-speaking Filipinos, 40 percent Hawaiians including Niihau residents and about 15 percent from the military installation at nearby Barking Sands.
About 65 percent of school families are on free or reduced lunch, and that number is expected to rise after plantation employees are laid off.
A total of 14 Kekaha families with 17 children -- where one or both parents work for Amfac -- will be directly affected by the closure and layoffs, but indirect impacts go far beyond.
"What I know about children is that sometimes whatever happens in the family impacts their academic progress," Smith said. "Now that we're looking at employment challenges within the family, I can only assume that the degree of challenge has just multiplied."
Daniel Hamada, the Department of Education's Kauai District Superintendent, said schools in west and central Kauai will feel the ripples from the Kekaha and Lihue mills shutting down.
Schools -- especially in difficult times -- need to have a nurturing atmosphere, Hamada said.
"The school has to be a place where the kids want to come. ... It's a place where they get a good education, they have a meal and hopefully they feel they can get their minds off the problems at home," Hamada said. "I'm pretty confident we can help the kids during this period."
But the task may not easy.
Money is a main concern.
"If there's less money coming into the family, then you're gonna have impacts on food, school supplies, going on excursions, new clothes or any discretionary funds," Smith said.
Ronald Sahut's kids have mentioned money.
Sahut, 41, of Hanapepe is a tractor mechanic at the Kekaha mill. He has two daughters attending Waimea High School and two others attending Kapiolani Community College on Oahu.
"They neva feel the effects yet -- we still getting checks. Once the checks no mo' then you feel the effects," said Sahut, muddy and sweaty from working. "They wondering how we going eat."
Sonny Cacal, 38, of Kekaha also works in the mill's garage shop.
Cacal, a single parent with a son at Waimea High and a daughter at Waimea Canyon School, said his plantation job is his main source of income. His children are already thinking about ways to cut back.
"They think about wants and needs. If they don't really need 'em, they say, 'Dad, I don't want 'em.' "
Smith guarantees parents that their children will read and write fluently, think critically and be safe at her school.
Kekaha already is a depressed community with businesses closing. But the added stress of moms or dads out of work will be hard on many kids in the area.
"They're worried about their mother, their father. They're worried about having food for dinner, they're worried about not going on the excursion next week, they're worried about they're friends making fun of them," Smith said.
"If you're worried about that, there's no way you're going to look at your math homework or have a response for this book you're reading. If kids are worried about stuff, they're not going achieve, they're not going to progress."
Children who don't understand what's going on will sometimes manifest their feelings through physical aggression, she said.
"So, I will again assume that the level of children getting lickin' is going to be going up, I'm going to assume the number of children giving other kids lickin' and hitting and punching ... is going to go up. The whole school is impacted."
Smith said she and her staff will be on hand to help families cope, but the school will also need assistance from outside agencies and private organizations.
"It's going to be one family at a time. Through counseling, even if (the situation) is junk, we can make them feel that it's OK."