For most of us—whether we’ve vacationed there or just drooled
over the vistas on “Hawaii 5-0”—the Aloha State is a paradise:
epic waterfalls, hidden coves, and a slow-paced, barefoot way of
life. More than a few tourists are inspired to relocate.
Sarah Sorenson, GRI, was one of them. She took her parents
to Hawaii for their 50th wedding anniversary in the mid-1980s
and ended up a resident. Thirty years later, she wouldn’t leave
for the world. But she’s learned that paradise has a hard edge.
In a place where the median home price is $720,000, a
gallon of milk costs $6.60, and the public schools are sorely
underfunded, many Hawaiians aren’t living the dream.
Thousands of children face poverty and schools lack basic
supplies—pencils, notepads, crayons—needed for learning.
Teachers chip in as they can, though they too struggle with the
cost of living. First-grade teacher Melani Palmer estimates she
spends up to $500 per year out of her own pocket buying school
supplies and healthy snacks for her students. “Diet is a real
issue for this population,” she says. “Fruits and vegetables are
expensive. It’s easier for them to get a bag of Doritos.”
To address the schools’ funding shortfall, Sorenson, broker-
owner of Whale’s Tail Realty in Wailuku, came up with a solution:
the Wishing Well...for Maui Students, a nonprofit operated
through the REALTORS® Association of Maui that serves
23,000 kids at 35 schools across three islands in Maui County.
“So many schools needed help. I couldn’t choose just one,” says
Sorenson, a former teacher.
When Sorenson proposed the idea in 2007, Association
Executive Terry Tolman told her she had to commit for three
years. Sorenson has already tripled that pledge. “I’m amazed at
what’s come of it and how far it reaches,” Tolman says. He cites
her “patience, persistence, ability to connect with people, and
inclusivity” for the program’s success.
Deep Well of Commitment
Sorenson recruits volunteer coordinators—typically
REALTORS® who are parents—to work with each school. Wish
lists include everything from pencils and backpacks to furniture.
To meet the need, Sorenson runs school supply drives and taps
into the state’s economic engine: tourism. She acquires chairs,
tables, and other gently used furniture from hotels undergoing
remodels. Janice Espiritu, the principal at Kaunakakai
Elementary on the island of Molokai, was the beneficiary of
new conference room chairs—the first such upgrade since the
Inevitably, volunteer coordinators move on when their kids
age out of the school. So Sorenson steps in until she can recruit
new ones. She currently serves as coordinator for eight schools,
estimating that she puts in 36 hours per week—after 8 p.m. and
on weekends. “My kids are grown, my parents passed away,”
she says. “I never thought about the commitment. I just knew
there was a need. I knew up front that we couldn’t do everything,
but we could do something.”
Leveling the Playing Field
Principal Espiritu is grateful for the support. Thanks to deliveries
of fans, furniture, and school supplies, “the morale and school
environment have improved. It’s made people feel that someone
cares about us,” Espiritu says. “And the kids don’t have to wait
for or borrow a pencil, which made them feel self-conscious,
because their parents can’t a;ord supplies.”
Life inside the classroom improves, too. “It levels the playing
field,” says Palmer of the donated supplies. “Things run more
smoothly and humanely. You don’t have to put parents on the
spot or single out [a student about supplies]. Teaching is very
intense. This takes the edge o;.” What motivates Sorenson?
“Teachers are like nurses—passionate about helping,” she says,
so it fulfills her to help them help the kids. She also takes pride
in seeing her fellow real estate pros embedded in the cause. “If I
ask for something, they’re there,” she says.
Contact Sorenson at email@example.com and Wishing Well...for
Maui Students at ilovemauischools.com.
When Pencils Mean Paradise
BY CHRISTINA HOFFMANN
SARAH SORENSON WAILUKU, HAWAII | WHALE’S TAIL REALT Y
Sarah Sorenson’s indefatigable campaign ensures that