A dream come true

Dream Imua gives 6-year-old girl a ‘Moana’ party

Six-year-old Aliyah Nitta examines a gift of a paddle alongside her auntie Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez and cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua on Sunday at Launiupoko Beach Park. Dream Imua, a local wish-fulfilling program for children, gave Aliyah a daylong celebration inspired by her favorite Disney character, Moana. 
• The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Six-year-old Aliyah Nitta examines a gift of a paddle alongside her auntie Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez and cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua on Sunday at Launiupoko Beach Park. Dream Imua, a local wish-fulfilling program for children, gave Aliyah a daylong celebration inspired by her favorite Disney character, Moana. • The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

LAUNIUPOKO — With stand-up paddlers just off shore and families barbecuing on the grass, Launiupoko Beach Park looked the way it often does on Sundays. But, for one little girl, it might as well have been the village of Motunui.

Wearing a ti-leaf skirt, plumeria haku lei and a shy smile, Aliyah Nitta sat in a canoe with a sail painted to look just like the one from her favorite Disney film, “Moana” — a dream come true on her 6th birthday.

“It means a lot for us to even see her enjoy this day,” said Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez, Aliyah’s auntie. “She went through a lot in the past year and a half. Today is just a day all about her. . . . To see that smile on her face. We’d do anything to keep that smile on her face.”

The daylong birthday celebration was a project of Dream Imua, a wish-fulfilling program run by Imua Family Services. A year ago, Aliyah’s father, Dustin Nitta, committed suicide, leaving behind three daughters and a pregnant fiancee. Aliyah, the oldest child, was home at the time. Since then, family members and teachers have been trying to restore some sense of normalcy to her life.

“This is big for her,” Aliyah’s mother, Ashley Recopuerto, said of the party. “It’s a distraction. . . . She’s going to be talking about it for a while.”

Ashley Recopuerto (front row, from left), 6-month-old daughter Kalea, Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez, Aliyah Nitta, Paia Elementary kumu Ku‘uipo Kaya and Paia school counselor Kalele Kekauoha-Schultz pose with princess Moana (Ka‘anohi Eleneki) and demigod Maui (James Kapu). The canoe was painted and set up to look like the canoe from the Disney film “Moana.”
• Photo courtesy of Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez

Ashley Recopuerto (front row, from left), 6-month-old daughter Kalea, Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez, Aliyah Nitta, Paia Elementary kumu Ku‘uipo Kaya and Paia school counselor Kalele Kekauoha-Schultz pose with princess Moana (Ka‘anohi Eleneki) and demigod Maui (James Kapu). The canoe was painted and set up to look like the canoe from the Disney film “Moana.” • Photo courtesy of Vanessa Bascar-Fernandez

According to its website, Dream Imua “provides a dream day to children between the ages of 4 and 16 who face a crisis of any nature; abuse, neglect, homelessness, medical or psychological issues personal loss or family difficulties.” Originally started in 1990 as A Keiki’s Dream, the program changed its name when Imua Family Services took over in August 2015, program coordinator Rainelle Lushina said. Since its inception, the program has helped create more than 1,400 dream days.

Two months ago, Lushina met and interviewed Aliyah.

“She was very earnest, but I couldn’t understand her answers to my questions,” said Lushina, who then realized that the girl was responding in Hawaiian.

Aliyah is one-quarter Native Hawaiian and just finished kindergarten at Paia Elementary, where she is enrolled in Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Pa’ia, the school’s Hawaiian immersion program.

“I decided that her language and culture are what her celebratory dream day should be all about,” Lushina said.

Ku‘uipo Kaya, a kindergarten teacher for Paia Elementary and the school’s Hawaiian immersion program, teaches hula to Aliyah Nitta (facing, with lei on head) and a group of Girl Scouts.
• The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Ku‘uipo Kaya, a kindergarten teacher for Paia Elementary and the school’s Hawaiian immersion program, teaches hula to Aliyah Nitta (facing, with lei on head) and a group of Girl Scouts. • The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The central theme could be none other than Aliyah’s hero: Moana. In December, she saw the movie for the first time and quickly fell in love with the music and the fiercely independent main character.

“She’s not a fan of (any) other princess but Moana, because of the ocean, the singing and just the island feel,” Bascar-Fernandez said.

Recopuerto said that her daughter can watch the movie “almost every day, still yet.” And whenever Aliyah’s out on the water — whether it’s on the boat to Lanai for wrestling tournaments or swimming at a waterpark — she breaks out in song. She knows “E Kahiki E,” the Hawaiian-language version of the movie’s main tune, “How Far I’ll Go,” by heart.

On Sunday, Aliyah went for a morning sail alongside Moana, who happened to be her Hawaiian immersion summer school teacher, Ka’anohi Eleneki. Sporting elaborate tattoos and holding a giant fishhook, Eleneki’s husband, James Kapu, played Maui, the demigod who accompanies Moana on her journey.

Later, Aliyah made lei with girls from Girl Scout Troup 555. They also got some lessons in Hawaiian language and culture from cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua; Aliyah’s kumu, Ku’uipo Kaya; and school counselor, Kalele Kekauoha-Schultz. After lunch, Aliyah headed to the Maui Ocean Center, where she and her family got to be the very first guests to tour the park with as-yet-unreleased Hawaiian-language audio guides.

“It’s wonderful, and I just wish I could yell ‘thank you,'” Recopuerto said during the party at Launiupoko. “She was very surprised and just excited.”

Recopuerto has worked to keep her daughter focused on school and sports as the family copes with its loss. Family members aren’t sure what Aliyah saw on the day of her father’s death. Slowly, she’s told them bits and pieces. He was angry. He had a gun. Recopuerto said they’ve been trying to explain to the girl the concept of death.

“She thinks daddy’s lost somewhere and we need to go look for him,” Bascar-Fernandez said.

Aliyah breaks down when remembering things she used to do with him. A ride to school in the morning or the sight of a wrestling mat (she and her dad took mixed martial arts classes) can send her into tears.

“It’s very hard. I’m supposed to be showing her emotions, but I don’t really like to show her emotions because she starts comforting me and not the other way around,” Recopuerto said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

Recopuerto, who works at California Pizza Kitchen at the Kahului Airport, and her children have moved in with Bascar-Fernandez, a cousin who’s been like a sister. Growing up, Recopuerto’s family took in Bascar-Fernandez, and she was more than happy to return the favor. The three adults and seven children live in a two-bedroom cottage in Kula.

At school, Aliyah has progressed a lot over the past year and is now able to count and express herself in basic terms in Hawaiian, teachers said. They described her as a well-mannered student, quiet, honest and smart. She’s also an up-and-coming wrestler, consistently earning second place at tournaments with 808 Wrestling, Bascar-Fernandez said.

In the same way that a community of family and friends has supported Recopuerto and her children, a community came together Sunday to create Aliyah’s dream day. The Kimokeo Foundation sponsored the event. Fisherman and canoe builder Timi Gilliom, one of many volunteers, painted the sail for the six-man outrigger canoe. Nalu’s South Shore Grill catered the party.

“The community really wants to do this work,” Lushina said. “It’s like, all I have to do is ask . . . and people are willing to bend over backwards.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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