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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2010

Memorial Day lei project blossoms

By Lee Cataluna

Their fingers are sticky and maybe a little green, but 200 eighth-graders on the Big Island are determined to make 4,500 lei for Memorial Day.

Like generations of Hawai'i students, Donna Tengan remembers earnestly doing her part for the "Sew a Lei for Memorial Day" program, which enlists schoolchildren to make lei to be placed at the headstones at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

As a child, she didn't think about where the lei were going.

"I just knew that they were for the veterans and my dad was a veteran," Tengan said.

When she became a teacher at Kea'au Middle School, Tengan signed on to have her students participate in the lei program. But then it occurred to her that while they were making lei to be sent to O'ahu, no one was making lei for their own veterans cemetery in Hilo.

Three years ago, she came up with a plan. She would challenge her students to make a lei for every headstone in the East Hawai'i Veterans Cemetery Nos. I and II. It would be part of their math curriculum to find out how many veterans were buried there, how many lei they could make at a time, how much material they would need and so on. The kids rose to the challenge.

"As they placed the leis on each headstone, I knew that they knew why we were there," she said. They calculated 3,200 veterans buried at the cemetery and made 3,500 lei, but still came up short because they put lei on every headstone including those of veterans' spouses and children.

"I told them that it was all right because they too had served when their veteran was serving in the armed forces," Tengan said.

They decided to go with twisted ti-leaf lei because flowers are in great demand during this May Day and graduation season. The ti leaves were gathered from the students' yards, from the school and from neighbors, but most were donated by Green Point Nurseries.

The math class project involved a bit of science, too. At first, students would microwave the ti leaves to get them pliable enough for the twisting.

"But that started to smell like lau lau," Tengan said.

They experimented with ironing the leaves but discovered that freezing them resulted in the perfect consistency. In everything, there was data to be collected and analyzed.

"The kids would measure how long it took to freeze and figure out why the leaves weren't freezing. They expected the leaves to freeze overnight but that didn't happen."

The first year, Tengan told the kids she would pay for the bus fare to and from the cemetery out of her own pocket. Later, people donated to cover expenses. This year, Hawai'i County Mayor Billy Kenoi is providing transportation for the kids.

The mayor's spokeswoman, Desiree Moana Cruz, has been coordinating efforts to expand the program by inviting honored guests from the armed forces community to a ceremony and luncheon with the kids.

"I'm really impressed with Donna and her determination and ability to make this happen," Cruz said.

The last day of school for Kea'au is May 26. On that morning, the eighth-graders will go by bus to the veterans cemeteries in Hilo with thousands of handmade lei, sticky fingers and big hearts.

Tengan's commitment to the project was sealed that first year when among the graves the children honored with their lei, they stopped to pay their respects at her father's headstone.

"They told me, 'Miss ... we made your dream come true, yeah?' With pride and tears, I agreed."