When Pencils Mean Paradise

Sarah Sorenson’s indefatigable campaign to ensure school kids have the basic supplies they need to learn and feel cared for.

August 30, 2016

For most of us — whether we’ve vacationed there or just drooled over “Hawaii 5-0”’s vistas — the Aloha State is a paradise: epic waterfalls, hidden coves, and a slow-paced, barefoot way of life. More than a few vacations have inspired tourists to pack up and relocate.

Sarah Sorenson did. She took her parents to Hawaii for their 50th wedding anniversary in the mid-1980s and ended up a permanent resident. Thirty years later, she wouldn’t move back to the mainland for the world. But she’s learned that paradise has a hard edge.

In a place where the median home sales price is $720,000, the average cost of a gallon of milk is $6.60 (that’s 104 percent more than in Chicago), and the public schools are sorely underfunded (Hawaii’s general school administration spending is dead last among the 50 states), many Hawaiians aren’t living the dream.

In fact, thousands of school children face poverty and schools that lack the basic supplies — pencils, notepads, crayons — that facilitate learning. Teachers chip in as they can, though they too struggle mightily with the cost of living. Hawaii has one of the highest teacher attrition rates in the U.S.

First-grade teacher Melani Palmer sees the need first-hand. Many students at Makawao Elementary School on Maui are on “a lot of social services.” She estimates she spends between $300 and $500 per year out of her own pocket buying school supplies and healthy snacks like grapes and carrots. “Diet is a real issue for this population. Fruits and vegetables are expensive; it’s easier for them to get a bag of Doritos.”

To address the schools’ funding shortfall, Sorenson, a former teacher who is the broker-owner of Whale’s Tail Realty in Wailuku, came up with a simple, albeit labor-intensive, solution: the Wishing Well...for Maui Students, a 501(c)(3) organization operated through the REALTORS® Association of Maui that provides school necessities to teachers and 23,000 kids at 35 schools in Maui County. This includes the remote and rural Lanai and Molokai islands, the latter facing Hawaii’s highest unemployment rate. “So many schools needed help; I couldn’t choose just one,” Sorenson says.

When Sorenson came up with the idea in 2007 (she was allowed a pet project as the newly elected president of the REALTORS® Association of Maui), Association Executive Terry Tolman told her she had to commit to it for three years. Sorenson has tripled that pledge. “I’m amazed at what’s come of it and how far it reaches,” Tolman says. “I was a doubting Thomas at first.” But he cites her “patience, persistence, ability to connect with people, and inclusivity” for the program’s success.

How Wishing Well Works

To stay in contact with each of the county’s schools, Sorenson recruits volunteer coordinators—typically REALTORS® who are parents—who work with the school and Wishing Well to fulfill wish lists. These lists include everything from pencils and backpacks to printer cartridges and flip-flops. Yes, shoes. School policy requires kids to have footwear so they don’t hurt themselves stepping on bees, thorns, or the like. But some families are too poor to afford them.

To ensure a steady stream of donations, Sorenson beats the drum constantly. She holds drives in a Kmart every weekend in July before school starts. And she solicits donations, and volunteers, during REALTOR® membership meetings.

She also taps into the state’s biggest economic engine: tourism. Connecting with hotels undergoing remodels, Sorenson acquires chairs, tables, and other gently used furniture. 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 Carter administration.

Besides gathering supplies, there’s the challenge of warehousing them. Again, Sorenson is on the front line: Her home doubles as a storage facility. It’s not unusual for her to have goods stacked up to the ceiling in some rooms. Wishing Well takes care of shipping costs, too — no small expense when your county is part of an archipelago scattered around the Pacific Ocean.

Sorenson’s biggest challenge, however, is keeping volunteer coordinators. They inevitably move on when their kids leave the school. So Sorenson steps in to work with those schools directly until she recruits new coordinators. She’s currently the coordinator for eight schools.

Sorenson estimates she’s put in more than 36 volunteer hours per week over the past 12 months. Keep in mind she achieves that extraordinary number in her off-hours away from her real estate business—after 8 p.m. and on weekends. “My kids are grown, my parents passed away, and now I only have one cat to deal with,” 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.”

“She operates Wishing Well like she operates her business,” says coordinator, parent, and REALTOR® Katie Moquin. “She’s committed, smart, and dedicated. She doesn’t have kids in school any more, and still she supports the community. She dedicates entire weekends to this.”

Before and After Wishing Well

Principal Espiritu, as well, is grateful for the support. Before Wishing Well, the school’s administrators felt like Cinderella in the dark times. Any resources typically “went to Maui. Plus, we had to pay for shipping to Molokai. We got the crumbs,” she says.

Now, thanks to deliveries of fans (the schools are often brutally hot when they open in August), 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 or something, which made them feel self-conscious, because their parents can’t afford [supplies].”

Says teacher Palmer of the donated supplies: “It levels the playing field. 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 off.”

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 a lot of pride in the fact that her fellow real estate pros are so deeply embedded in the cause. “If I ask for something, they’re there,” she says.

Contact Sorenson at whales@maui.net and Wishing Well...For Maui Students at ilovemauischools.com.