Kilauea’s fury bookends four years of high school for Pahoa’s would-be grads

  • Graduating Pahoa High and Intermediate School seniors are, from left, Kulena Wiebe, Destiny Keka-Rodrigues, Jericho Manning and Hannah Stinnett. (STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald)

PAHOA — Madame Pele’s path through Puna won’t stop Pahoa High and Intermediate School seniors from accepting their diplomas on Sunday, but recent eruption activity has affected some would-be graduates.

After a graduation rehearsal Friday, senior Kulena Wiebe said she lives in Kapoho and had to evacuate earlier this month because of Kilauea’s ongoing eruption.

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“So I moved, but that made me feel like, I guess, I got closer to my friends because they were there for me through the entire time,” she said.

The experience has been tough, she said, “because I had to worry about where am I going to be living, if I’m going to start college soon, and if I’m going to be able to make it to graduation and where all my family’s going to be.”

Staying with her sister now, Wiebe said she’s adapted to the change and things have gotten smoother. Her future is planned, she said, “so I know I’m going to be going to college, and I know that I have transportation, and at least I have the roof over my head.”

Wiebe will study at the University of Hawaii at Hilo for a year before joining the U.S. Air Force.

Destiny Keka-Rodrigues said her family lives about a mile away from some of the lava outbreaks, “but my mom doesn’t want to leave, so we’re staying in our house.”

That decision has brought distractions — and questions.

“I worry that with this lava thing, I’m not going to be able to graduate, because what if the lava comes and they cancel graduation?” she asked on Friday. “I need to graduate! And, like, what if I lose my house, and what about my family, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come to school because what if the lava thing happens again. … It’s a lot of stress.”

Hannah Stinnett said her family isn’t directly impacted by the eruption, but she was scared for her friends who lived in areas affected by it and kept up with them, “because I didn’t want to lose my friends like I did my freshman year.”

This isn’t the first time the graduating class has faced natural disaster.

The current eruption comes nearly four years after lava threatened Pahoa in 2014, when the current seniors would have been freshmen.

“So we joined high school with a bang, and we’re leaving with a bang,” Wiebe said with a laugh.

But along with the lava comes the excitement and anxiety of graduation.

Keka-Rodrigues, who said she’s in the process of joining the U.S. Marines, said graduation is scary.

“I think it’s more like I feel like I’m never going to see my friends again,” she said. “I’m going into the military, so it’s going to be far from them, and I don’t want to lose them.”

“I feel like this whole experience with both lavas (2014 and 2018) has made us a lot closer, so we connected better,” Wiebe said. “So I feel like after graduation that’s going to … break us apart, and we’re not going to have that connection.”

Keka-Rodrigues, though, said she’s glad about her upcoming graduation.

“I’m so happy, but I’m scared. It’s finally here.”

Jericho Manning agreed with his classmates and said, “We’ve been waiting all our lives basically for this moment and, I mean, it feels like it’s not real.”

The reality will hit on Sunday, “when we’re actually walking down the line and getting handed our diploma,” he said.

Manning, who will be joining the U.S. Coast Guard after graduation, has the same post-graduation worries as the others.

And while his family wasn’t affected by the current eruption, Manning said it has had an impact on the final weeks of school.

“I think it has in a little way, though, because when it first initially started with the first outbreak in Leilani, there was a lot of shock.”

People were in disbelief that the eruption was happening, he said.

“And then you start to notice in classrooms that there are less and less kids coming to school every day. Then you would find out that either their house was probably taken or was cut off, or they’re in the shelter because they can’t go back to their house,” Manning said.

There’s pressure, too, he said, “because when you’re in your classes and stuff, you don’t really feel like you’re learning that much, because everyone is so focused on the lava instead of what’s going on in school, in class.”

Manning, who was one of the students who had to transfer schools because of lava in 2014, said it was strange finding out about a new lava outbreak.

“The first thing I thought was my freshman year there was lava, and now we have lava again, so it was just really weird.”

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Pahoa’s graduation is 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Hilo Civic Auditorium.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.