“It’s Not Just About the Plants”: A Hawaii Educator Discovers Life Lessons in a High School Backyard – Honolulu Civil Beat | Directory Mayhem

Paul Balazs grabbed a shovel and began digging, carefully chopping up a banana tree for propagation in Kaiser High School’s Peace and Sustainability Garden.

He started teaching English at school in East Honolulu ten years ago. He now teaches leadership training and theory of knowledge and is a student advisor. But for community members and colleagues, Balazs is a “life force,” as neighboring farmer Heather Mohr put it.

In 2016, the original idea for the garden was realized after a group of Balazs students from the Wipeout Crew, an after-school eco-conscious and service-minded club Balazs has been running for eight years, approached him to create an outdoor space that would reconnect with nature connects.

The Peace and Sustainability Garden was once a neglected piece of land on the Imperial grounds, overgrown with weeds and California grass. Now the garden is thriving with 78 different plants. Courtesy Paul Balazs/2022

Balazs is the only teacher on the Wipeout crew. In his spare time he mows the lawn, waters the plants and organizes club events outside of school hours. Still, he doesn’t want recognition.

“If you get it right — anything in life — it’s not about you,” Balazs said.

This year, 135 students have signed up for the club despite receiving no academic credit. Over the past five years, Balazs and his students have grown 78 different types of plants—52 of them are native to Hawaii and the rest are herbs, vegetables, and fruits.

Named after the endangered native hibiscus, Hau Hele Ula, the Hawaiian portion of the garden includes plants that would have been found in Maunalua or other drought-tolerant areas.

Emperor teacher Paul Balazs
Since Paul Balazs founded the Garden for Peace and Sustainability with his students, he has inspired another teacher at Kaiser to create his own garden nearby. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Of the many contributions the garden and Wipeout crew have received, Balazs said the generosity of Keiki and Plow, an education-focused family-owned farm just inside Kaiser’s back gate, has been invaluable — particularly the bananas.

At least 18 banana trees have grown from the four bananas donated by Mohr, CEO and owner of Keiki and Plow, and her late husband Ryan.

Mohr said the keiki trees she donated to Kaiser were grown from trees gifted to her and her husband by other farmers on the islands. Now the banana trees growing in Kaiser’s garden will provide for students for generations to come.

On a Friday after school, Balazs explained to the Wipeout crew that each banana tree only produces one shelf of bananas. But as long as the rhizome, the stem of the mother plant, is healthy, the mother tree will continue to produce.

“First the roots, then the fruit,” said Balazs. “It’s not just about plants, it’s also about life… You need a foundation, so if things change that you didn’t plan for, you have the best chance of surviving a disaster.”

Balazs showed the students how to dig the holes and plant the keiki trees, then the crew split into pairs to do it alone.

Kaiser wipeout crew
Earlier this month, Paul Balazs organized a beach cleanup at Bellows Field Beach Park with the Wipeout crew, and together they collected 93 pounds of marine debris. Courtesy Paul Balazs/2022

“I think part of the garden’s success is having Paul at the helm,” Mohr said. “He uses the garden to reach out to these kids and create a pause in their day that breeds a lot of mindfulness.”

“Paul is a life force,” she said, adding that one of his many gifts as a natural leader is his ability to connect others.

The Wipeout Crew, which is part of the Surfrider Foundation youth network, initially focused solely on beach clean-ups. Since they started, the students have cleaned thousands of pounds of trash off Oahu’s shores.

Balazs saw an opportunity to steer the Wipeout crew towards Aina-based education when he discovered the potential for a neglected piece of land on Kaiser’s property – at the time it was overcrowded with Haole Koa and 8ft tall California grass, which took several months to clear in 2016.

During the clearing process, Balazs and his students discovered rock faces and taro growing along the fence line. They discovered that the area was formally a Hawaiian garden and taro bed that had been part of a Hawaiian navigation course at Kaiser over a decade earlier, under the care of Michelle Kapana-Baird, a former teacher aged 27.

Kapana-Baird’s vision and story helped give the Peace and Sustainability Garden its name. The Kou tree that she planted on September 11, 2001 to provide a place for the students to reflect on what happened still stands.

With Balazs’ support, the Wipeout crew have learned to grow their own food, nurture native plants, and prompted Kaiser to switch from Styrofoam cafeteria trays to recycled, compostable cardboard.

Balazs has also encouraged his students to get involved with the Capitol. In 2018, he took several students downtown to testify about a law banning sunscreen, which contains chemicals scientists have determined are harmful to reefs.

Shannon Murphy, a former student of Balazs and president of the Wipeout crew that year, has been particularly involved in campaigning to get the law passed. She now works for the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“He really makes you feel like you can achieve anything,” Murphy said, adding that if it wasn’t for Balazs, she would never have gone to environmental science.

Kaiser wipeout crew
Left to right: Paul Balazs, Azita Ganjali, Gov. David Ige and Shannon Murphy in the Capitol in July 2018 following the passage of Senate Bill 2571. Courtesy Wipeout Crew/2018

He also recently assumed the role of student activities coordinator following the retirement of his predecessor, Rinda Fernandes.

Fernandes had held the position for almost half a century when she retired in July and said Balazs is the only person she wants to take over her job.

“There’s no one like Paul,” Fernandes said, adding that Balazs has an unmatched ability to inspire people to help each other and the environment.

But Balazs didn’t always know he was going to be a teacher.

Balazs was born and raised in the Kamiloiki Valley. He is the son of a world-renowned marine biologist and a social worker from Kaiser Permanente.

Describing himself as a “bad student” who was a “long-haired, superstoked surfer,” Balazs briefly recalled his days as a guitarist in a band before casually mentioning that he worked multiple jobs, seven days a week, for six years have a week.

Originally a film major at UH, Balazs transferred to Kapiolani Community College to be closer to one of his jobs and have more time to surf.

Kaiser Peace and Sustainability Garden
Paul Balazs shows students how to properly propagate a banana tree. Paul said the garden is full of metaphors for life and he often uses it to teach students about life. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

At KCC, he fell in love with education, inspired by fellow sociology professor Robin Mann, who hosted the local educational television series Romper Room in the 1960s.

Mann, a teacher for 51 years, said Balazs’ eagerness to learn and get involved in community work impressed her more than anything else.

“Students have to experience something before they really understand it, and that’s why Paul is such a great teacher,” Mann said.

Balazs recalled how Mann took his class on a trip to Kauai for a year and said it inspired him to spearhead several student trips to Fiji, Thailand and Laos.

Mann also encouraged Balazs to ask himself how he could be of service in his community, which led him to his interest in special education, coaching for the Special Olympics, and his career as an educator.

Outside of his work at Kaiser, Balazs has served on the board of directors of The Arc in Hawaii, a non-profit organization founded by a group of parents of children with intellectual disabilities, and currently serves on the board of directors of Live Aloha.

Balazs is also pursuing his master’s degree in curriculum studies with a focus on sustainability education. Having seen the positive impact of the peace and sustainability garden, Balazs is now learning the impact of outdoor education and specifically the impact that school gardens have on young people by relieving pressure and stress.

Though his long hair is long gone, his pursuit of education has remained a constant.

“On my first day as a teacher, there was a part of my heart that I didn’t even know was there that just opened up,” Balazs said. “It’s all about the kids.”

Civil Beat’s educational reporting is supported by a grant from the Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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