By Bill Mossman, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Public AffairsMay 30, 2009
WAHIAWA, Hawaii - Each year before Memorial Day, dozens of senior citizens gather, here, like worker bees to flowers, to participate in an annual patriotic service project - making lei for the gravesites of those interred at Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery.
The volunteers are members of the Wahiawa Rainbow Seniors Club, and on the morning of May 22, they came together with gladness in their hearts, and weathered yet willing hands, to slowly begin the task of stringing a rainbow of freshly picked flowers for this year's challenge. They produced 1,740 leis in eight hours.
Now in it's third consecutive year, the Memorial Day lei-making event began as a suggestion from the seniors themselves, said Leslie Stewart, chief, Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Assistance Center, Schofield Barracks. "They approached us (in 2007) because they wanted to get involved and volunteer their services."
"These are altruistic, community-minded folks putting forth work for our Schofield Barracks neighbors," explained the group's president Noelle Sutherland.
In the past, the group produced lei approximately two-feet in length. This year, however, the volunteers were asked that the floral wreaths be scaled back to 18 inches.
"It's still a circle of flowers, but they're almost lei po'o," explained Sutherland, in reference to the traditional haku lei worn at the top of one's head.
After receiving this year's instructions, the seniors wasted little time. At 7 a.m., the first wave of club members sprang into action, sorting through some 20 bags of plumeria, numerous branches of bouganvillia, and a large box of handpicked stephanotis, courtesy of the club's nonagenarian, Helen Liu.
Ti leaves were heated in a microwave oven to increase their pliability for shaping. And the lei, particularly the bouganvillia and ti leaf, were separated to prevent the colors from bleeding onto each other, and then boxed.
At 10:11 a.m., lei counter Yvonne Okazaki checked her list and realized the group had finished 350 lei. When asked if the volunteers would be able to make a deadline less than five hours away, Okazaki nodded confidently.
"Can do," she said. "I have faith in these ladies."
Fifteen minutes later, another 150 lei had been completed and boxed, bringing the group's total to an even 500. And, 30 minutes after that, the count rose to 650.
"The ladies are actually starting to slow down, so we've decided to give them some sugar," said Okazaki, observing. After a brief pause, she blurted out, "Go get some cake, girls!"
When the day was nearly done, one volunteer, Vilia Robertson, reflected upon the group's efforts. She expressed gratitude for being a part of a project that gives back to those who served their country and are now buried at the Schofield cemetery.
"Our family is very patriotic, and this is how we give back to the military," said Robertson, whose deceased father, Lt. Col. Terry Adamiya, was a member of the famous Asian-American unit, the 442nd Infantry Regiment. He was once stationed at Schofield Barracks. "After all, without the military, where would we be'"
The garlands were put in coolers until Memorial Day morning when islandwide groups of Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts carefully placed the wreaths; along with miniature U.S. flags, at the gravesites at Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery.
The Wahiawa Rainbow Seniors Club efforts - along with those from other organizations, including the Wahiawa Mission and volunteers at the Wahiawa Botanical Gardens - continue to be appreciated by those who plan and coordinate the annual event."