COMING TOGETHER: Keaau High’s ‘Puna Peace Mural’ to be unveiled today

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It was a merger that had the potential to be very messy.

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It was a merger that had the potential to be very messy.

The Pahoa and Keaau high schools were asked to join forces in October as the June 27 lava flow appeared ready to strike at the heart of Pahoa town. Students living above the projected path of the lava would continue their studies at Keaau, and that would mean the longtime cross-town high school rivals were going to be in close contact every single day, all day long.

“In the beginning, just because of the rivalries from school to school, there was concern,” said Keaau art teacher Russ Cummins. “There were rumors that something might happen.”

But, as it turned out, the union was a relatively smooth and happy one.

“I thought it was terrific,” Cummins said. “The teachers really took time to talk to (the students before the move), and (Principal Dean) Cevallos really took leadership responsibility to meet with students and explain the circumstances — the fact that some of these people were losing their jobs, losing their homes, and the school should have empathy for them and welcome them to be a part of our ohana.”

As part of that process, Puna-area artist Ken Charon agreed to work with students to paint the “Puna Peace Mural,” which would serve to “promote good behavior and ease tensions,” he said.

With a grant from the Volcano Art Center totaling about $2,000 to cover Charon’s stipend, and a donation of $420 from the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to cover costs for the art supplies, the artist set about painting the 6-foot-by-12-foot mural in the hallway of Keaau High.

About 15 students helped with the project, some referred by Cummins and some who just volunteered after seeing the work progressing.

“It’s been a great opportunity, just to interact with the kids here in the hallway,” Charon said.

As the work continued, the artist shared lessons with the students about what are known as the critical “C” skills — critical thinking, courage, conflict resolution, compassion, collaboration, commitment and community.

As it turned out, the lava flow remained at bay, and most of the Pahoa students are set to return to their home schools at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year. But the mural will remain, sharing its message of peace with future generations of students.

“And if the lava comes again, (the mural) will be there for them,” Charon said.

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Keaau High will celebrate the unveiling of the mural at 2:30 p.m. today in the hallway of the school’s Building H.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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