Kealakehe High special ed students get real-life experience, lend a helping hand

  • Claira Gomez’s Kealakehe High School Special Education class poses in front of a shed they completed painting for the Lowe’s Heroes program on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kealakehe High School Special Education students paint a shed for the Lowe's Heroes project on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kealakehe High School special education students Aaron Thatcher and Alden Underwood-Edsom paint a shed for the Lowe's Heroes project on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kealakehe High School special education student Kayla Higashi watches as her classmate Noa Hendricks jumps to paint the top of a shed for the Lowe’s Heroes project on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kealakehe High School special education students Alden Underwood-Edsom and Aaron Thatcher, left, and Kayla Higashi, right, paint a shed for the Lowe’s Heroes project. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kealakehe High School special education student Kayla Higashi paints a shed for the Lowe’s Heroes project on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — It was sweaty, hot and messy Thursday afternoon in the Lowe’s parking lot in Kailua-Kona. But the heat couldn’t keep seven special students from making quick work of a community project.

“It feels so good,” said Ben Finestone, a Kealakehe High School student in Ms. Claira Gomez’s special education class, as his brush put a layer of bright red paint on a storage shed soon to be donated to Kai Ehitu Outrigger Team.

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Joining Finestone in making quick work of the task were six of his classmates: Kayla Higashi, Noa Hendricks, Noah Slater, Ramona Kilafwakun, Aaron Thatcher and Alden Underwood-Edsom.

Though sometimes unable to express exactly how he or she felt, each student took pride in his or her work, making sure the red paint covered the shed thoroughly so that the plywood exterior is protected for years to come. Smiles, giggles and teamwork were on full-display throughout as the classmates stroked and rolled the paint on.

Hendricks called the work “intense” while Aaron described it as “messy” but fun. Slater, who was quick to show off his muscles while painting, said it is “so hot.”

The group is one of two special education classes led by Gomez who take part in the Community-based Instructional Work-based Program with Kealakehe High School at Lowe’s and other area businesses.

One class visits on Monday and the other on Thursday to take part in the program led for the past three years by Ebby Gleason, a team leader for Lowe’s.

Through the program, the students are learning vocational skills, what it’s like to work and how to socialize with customers. That’s in addition to having fun with arts and crafts and other projects.

“They’re a really nice bunch of kids,” Gleason said, noting the students participate by watering plants, fixing and organizing merchandise displays and other tasks.

Added Gomez, “They can behave appropriately, they are very presentable and they really want to be a part of the community in a productive way. They’re also so unique and talented.”

The sheds are being constructed for the community group, Kai Ehitu, as part of the Lowe’s Heroes program, which has been around in Kona for about 13 years, said Gleason. Through the program, the store “adopts” a volunteer project proposed by a local organization and provides the materials and labor.

“It’s based on employees volunteer work. It’s all free, it’s not anybody getting paid to do it,” Gleason explained. “If you want to come help, we are giving back.”

Past Lowe’s Heroes projects include building benches for Camp Erin and Boys Club, and picnic tables for the county, among others, said Gleason.

Normally, employees would volunteer their time to paint the structures, however, Gleason saw it as an opportunity to give the kids in the work-based program the opportunity to try and be a part of something new.

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Ebby is always looking for people to volunteer to teach the kids or to donate materials or time to the Community-based Instructional Work-based Program. Contact Ebby at the store by calling 331-3470 or call or text her cellphone at 345-0756.

In addition, Gomez is looking for employment for two of the students who took part in Thursday’s community project, seniors Ramona Kilafwakun and Kayla Higashi. Employers with openings are encouraged to contact her at 313-3705.