UH Hilo history students travel to Kalaupapa for service-learning project

In addition to doing service works such as cleaning pathways and beaches, removing invasive plants, and leaving lei at cemeteries, the students experienced the history of Kalaupapa, feeling the impact of the isolation once felt by leprosy patients, and learning first-hand the historical significance of the area.

By Alyssa Mathews.

Group of students standing for photo with sea cliffs in the background.
UH Hilo history students on a service learning mission to Kalaupapa, Molokai, gather for a group photo at Judd Park look-out, Kalawao. Waikolu Valley and ‘Okala island are in the distance. Left to right: Taylor Cimins, Tiffany Wilson, Mackenzie Ellsworth, Laura Dowsett, Leilani DeMello, Raquel Zane, Devon Aguiar, Leimana Pu‘u, Jame Miura, Paul Fontenot. Photos in this story are courtesy of the History Dept, UH Hilo. Click to enlarge.

In early November, a group of students studying history at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo traveled to Kalaupapa, a historical community on Molokai where patients with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, were quarantined at the peninsula over a 103 year period. Since 1866, more than 8,000 people, mostly Hawaiians, have died at Kalaupapa, according to the Kalaupapa National Historical Park. When Hansen’s disease was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha V banished all afflicted to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula on the north shore of Molokai. Once a prison to the people forced to live there, Kalaupapa is now a national park and a refuge for the remaining residents who are cured but were once forced to live their lives in isolation.

The UH Hilo students made the journey to Kalaupapa to do a service-learning project, a trip done annually by students taking select history courses. But in addition to doing service works such as cleaning pathways and structures, beach clean-ups, removing invasive plant species, and leaving lei at the cemeteries, the students experience the history of the place, feeling the impact of the forced isolation once endured by the patients, and learning first-hand the historical significance of area.

The trip is usually done by students taking the Hawaiian Kingdom class or the History of Disease and Medicine in Hawaiʻi class, this year’s trip done by the latter.

Kerri Inglis
Kerri A. Inglis

“Because the trip is connected to the curriculum in my coursework, the students go very well-prepared in understanding the history of Kalaupapa and the history of leprosy before we even get there,” says Kerri A. Inglis, professor of history who teaches both courses.

When arriving on Molokai—“topside” at the airport in Ho‘olehua—the students are shuttled to the trail on the north face of the island leading to Kalaupapa, where they then hike down the sheer cliff on a rugged zigzag trail to reach the isolated peninsula. Right away, students are immersed in the significance and history of the peninsula, seeing what patients saw and experienced.

“It is different for every [student], but I promise them before we head down that trail, something’s going to connect for them there that they were not expecting, and it’s going to help them, and change them, in ways that empower them,” says Inglis.

Two women leaning down next to lava rock wall to pull weeds.
Students (l-r) Charlene Faalafua and Leimana Puʻu remove lantana and other weeds from rock wall at Moku-pua-kala.

For the duration of the trip, the students are further immersed in the history of Kalaupapa as they stay in buildings that were present during the period of isolation.

“When we’re there, we are usually placed in staff housing, housing that was there during the time of isolation—the doctor’s house, the dentist’s house, the nursing quarters—those are the kinds of buildings where we live together for those three to five days,” says Inglis.

Students are encouraged to fully experience the trip by being aware of the environment, and absorbing the moʻolelo, or stories, behind it.

“We start each morning by gathering together and sharing a thought for the day and having an oli [chant] or two and focusing ourselves on where we are and why we are there,” explains Inglis. “We turn off our cell phones for the entire day, and really just focus on being present and making those connections in this very amazing place that has a difficult history.”

Set up virtually the same as when patients were kept in isolation are the visitor’s center, where patients were separated from family and loved ones by a divider, the Kahaloko cemetery, as well as some of the churches that patients worked to establish.

Students haul a large tarp filled with brush they've cleared away.
Students working together to haul large debris from Kahaloko Cemetery on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

“There is a lot of emotion in the trip as well because we are visiting certain places throughout the peninsula that have great historical significance and either myself or some of our sponsors from the national park will share some of the moʻolelo,” says Inglis. “It can be very moving.”

Student presentations about the experience

Upon returning from the trip, students shared their experiences and the connections they made during their trip to Kalaupapa in a presentation open to the public.

Student Leilani DeMello talked about how she connects to Kalaupapa through sharing patients’ stories and perspectives.

“I would always put myself in the situation of the patients, and think ‘how would that make me feel?’” says DeMello. “Being in a place and space where it seems like there’s no time, we can really put into perspective of what the patients went through. There was a limited amount of people allowed to go, but each of us that went was able to bring stories back.”

At the presentation, DeMello shared a picture of a rock wall built over one of the graves of a patient who was at Kalawao, the original settlement on the east side of the penninsula. She found the image symbolic of the way patients’ stories were often left untold and how patients themselves were hidden from the sight of the public.

“In sharing their stories, we’re keeping their voices from being silenced,” says DeMello. “We are able to bring stories back to life that would otherwise be forgotten.”

Another student, Paul Fontenot, felt an unexpected connection to the historical community.

“I’m not from Hawaiʻi, so I wasn’t really expecting to feel a connection to Kalaupapa,” he says. “I thought it would be foreign to me, but everyone was so welcoming and it really makes it feel like a family.”

He adds, “At UH Hilo, we’re really lucky in Hawaiian history in that we don’t have to travel very far to see these places. Any help that we can give to the peninsula, it brings you closer and makes history come to life.”

Fontenot shared photos showcasing the beautiful landscape of Kalaupapa, specifically sharing the Kauhakō crater that overlooks the entire peninsula.

Through their presentations and sharing the moʻolelo, the students serve to fulfill the wishes of patients and the community of Kalaupapa, both past and present.

“When students return from the trip, and give their presentations, and it’s a way of giving back to the community through educating others about the history of Kalaupapa, a very important component of the community of Kalaupapa,” says Inglis. “[The residents] want their story to be known, they want Hawaiʻi and the world to be educated about the disease, its history, and it’s always a way of breaking down stigma.”

Inglis adds, “The things that are learned on this trip are not about history as a discipline, but about working together, giving service, connecting to the āina [land] and making other connections to things that we maybe see as intangibles or difficult to articulate, but are incredibly significant. I think these trips to Kalaupapa change us in a good way. It helps us grow and develop in ways that we otherwise might not.”

Students sit on step leading up to the lighthouse.
Students gather on steps to the Kalaupapa lighthouse where they spent the morning clearing invasive plant species that had been blocking the pathway. Click to enlarge.


Story by Alyssa Mathews, a freshman at UH Hilo. She graduated from Waiakea High School and is a UH Hilo Chancellor’s Scholar.