Keiki Heroes aimed at educating children about life during the pandemic

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A sign informs people passing by about Keiki Heroes in Hilo earlier this month.

  • Courtesy of Keiki Heroes Volunteer Jake Au presents a Keiki Heroes poster to St. Joseph Elementary School Vice Principal Tanya Pataray in Hilo.

Since the beginning of the spread of COVID-19 in Hawaii, a group of volunteers has worked on an initiative to educate keiki about the pandemic.

Keiki Heroes is a community empowerment initiative that provides simple, keiki-centric COVID-19 information to the public. The goal is to encourage healthy habits and empower children to adopt positive behaviors to take care of their ohana.

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Keiki Heroes uses unique characters, Kai and Hoku, to represent kama‘aina children living through COVID realities using their superpowers, which include washing their hands, wearing masks and staying distanced from others.

Local artist Yuko Green illustrates the child characters in different situations in activity books and worksheets to help keiki learn about the virus in a creative way.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Keiki Heroes initially distributed activity booklets to all the elementary schools on the Big Island. Since the schools officially closed, the program put the focus on producing downloadable material on its website.

“When we first started to create content for Keiki Heroes, we scrambled to find ways to help kids make sense of this new world,” said Rebecca Choi. “Nothing has really changed physically, but all our behaviors have changed, so it’s important for us to help kids understand this new, invisible thing.”

Choi is one of the volunteers who dedicated time and expertise to create the program. As a mom, it was important for her to help children understand why they have to follow new rules, such as wearing a mask.

“If (keiki) don’t understand why they have to do something, then they won’t have to motivation to keep up the healthy actions,” Choi said. “Our illustrations and poems are targeted so children can learn and know exactly what they need to do.”

While the materials focus on safety measures, they also enforce family engagement and inform children that there are things they can do during the pandemic.

“The program is designed around empowerment and emphasizes what (keiki) can do right now,” Choi said. “They can wear a mask, they can wash their hands, stay distanced and, ultimately, help protect their ohana.”

With a lack of a normal routine, families have the opportunity to bond over Keiki Hero activities and talk about the virus together.

“Hopefully, families are facilitating conversations in their homes, because I think it will be important for recovery to allow keiki to talk about their experiences,” Choi said. “My hope is that our children will be more resilient and more compassionate even years after this.”

Keiki Heroes has evolved since it began in the early days of the pandemic. In December, the program introduced a public information campaign designed with children in kindergarten through sixth grade in mind.

Keiki and their ohana were given the opportunity to submit questions for public health leaders for a video series.

The series addresses tough questions from keiki, such as when schools will reopen, what the COVID-19 vaccine will do and when the pandemic will end.

“Some of the questions keiki have asked are brilliant,” Choi said. “We want to encourage them to voice their opinions and questions no matter what they are.”

Videos will be posted to the Keiki Heroes website through January. Questions not addressed in a video will be answered in writing at www.keikiheroes.org/questions.

While keiki are educated about COVID-19, volunteers hope they pass their newfound knowledge to family members, similar to the onset of mandatory seat belt laws that came into play in the early 1970s.

“When I was a kid, I always bothered my parents to put on a seat belt because they weren’t used to it,” said Craig Burger. “If you market toward children, you can’t help but inform parents on your message as well.”

Burger is another volunteer with Keiki Heroes and also a medical adviser for the team. Burger wrote many of the poems used to teach children about the coronavirus.

“You have to think in a completely different way to get messages across to children” he said. “You can’t depend heavily on spoken word, so you have to find creative ways to visualize your message.”

For example, volunteers decided the best way to describe how COVID-19 is spread is to convey that the virus “hops” in any direction and does not stop.

Keiki Heroes will continue to produce content and activities for children throughout the pandemic.

The project team recently collaborated with in-community translators where possible to launch a set of materials in 14 different languages, which are now available to download.

“It’s important that when we create outreach materials and educational resources, we present them in a way that removes barriers and increases accessibility,” Choi said. “We partnered with community translators for most of the languages to incorporate their feedback and cultural expertise as to how the information should be presented.”

Keiki Heroes’ messaging materials such as games, activity books, learning materials and coloring sheets can be downloaded for free at www.keikiheroes.org/shop.

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“Kids are resilient and good at adapting,” Burger said. “I hope we can continue to educate and reassure them that the future will be brighter.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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