Six Lokelani Intermediate teachers got more than apples from a Kihei businessman this week.
They received a $6,000 shopping spree for school supplies at Central Maui stores.
Bobby Baker, the owner of Maui Sun Divers, has been purchasing school supplies, lunches for the children, textbooks, Weekly Readers, printers, and computers, Smart Boards and other technology equipment for the past five or six years for teachers and their classrooms at the public intermediate school in Kihei.
Lokelani Intermediate School teachers Kalani Au and Michael James (on cart) shop for classroom supplies Monday at Costco. Bobby Baker, owner of Maui Sun Divers, picked up the tab.
Bobby Baker (in dark glasses) and Michael James pose for a photo outside OfficeMax in Kahului on Monday. Baker told James and three other Lokelani Intermediate 8th-grade teachers to fill up their shopping carts with school supplies, which he paid for.
He has no children and came to this generous "adopt a class" program with no specific ties to the school.
"The reason I do it is because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel great," said the semi-retired dive guide. "Finally, I've found something that makes a difference."
On Monday, he took science and math teacher Michael James, science teacher MaryAnn Jenness and social studies teachers Kalani and Joy Au shopping. The teachers also were carrying lists from social studies teacher Matt Smith and English teacher Debbie Walker, who were both off-island on the shopping day.
Baker told the teachers to fill up their shopping carts. They bought enough paper for the 8th grade, pens, printer ink, notebooks, glue, markers, masking tape and other supplies.
"I've got a receipt from OfficeMax that is 7 feet long," he said, adding that the office supply store gave him a discount.
The next day he was working on purchasing 200 to 300 subscriptions of the Weekly Reader. "They are amazingly expensive," at a total cost of about $3,000, he said.
In all, he will spend $6,000 on the 8th-grade teachers and their students at the 6th-to-8th-grade school. That amount has grown since the first time he purchased supplies.
This gift to the teachers began five or six years ago, depending on whether you talk to Baker or James. They met in the Starbucks in Kihei. Baker would go there after a hard day of taking people diving; she was at Starbucks to get out of the house and away from being lured into the soap opera world while recovering from a health issue.
"We became friends over that time," said James.
The 8th-grade teacher eventually recovered and went back to teaching. She would later impress Baker with her rapport with her students. One day, some 8th- and 9th-graders, who "look like punks," parked their boards outside the coffee shop and sat with James.
What 8th- or 9th-grader "sits with their 8th-grade teacher during the summer," Baker said. "They were riveted. I would never have done that when I was a kid. . . . It was amazing."
James, a veteran who has been teaching more than 20 years, the last 14 or 15 years at Lokelani, said she feels she can communicate with her students.
"Maybe it's because I've never grown up," said James, who has an adult son. "I'm in tune with the 8th grade.
"I'm interested in the kids and what they are doing and what they are doing in their lives," James said later.
She said a person certainly doesn't go into teaching for the money.
"It is the kids that make the job worthwhile," James said.
Among the greatest joys of teaching are those "aha" moments.
"Sometimes you are working and you are working . . . and out of the blue the kids get it," she said.
"They are the magic of the whole thing," James said. "They can give you gray hairs, but for the most part it's all good."
One day, Baker came across this usually vibrant, committed teacher in a defeated state of mind. She said the school had cut her supply budget again. Since the No Child Left Behind law too effect, James said, her school supply budget has gone from $500 a year to $100 - for her 100 students.
James said that she has put in between $5,000 to $10,000 a year of her own money to make her class work.
"I can't afford it anymore," Baker recalls her saying. "I don't have money to buy paper . . . for handouts. Things are getting more expensive."
When Baker offered to take her shopping for her school supplies, James couldn't believe it.
"People don't do this for teachers," she recalled thinking. "He assured me, 'this is something I really want to do.' ''
"We feel like we've won the lottery," she said. "I am still flabbergasted. Who has ever heard of something like this?"
Baker, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a literature degree, considers himself a teacher of sorts, too. He believes that he is able to show the dive groups he leads "what the ocean really is and what is happening to it."
He has been leading dive tours on Maui since 1979, calling it "a labor of love more than anything else." While toiling on Maui, Baker said, he "was surrounded by people who knew money." It is from investments he made that he is able to fund the teacher spending sprees.
The beauty of his giving is that "it goes directly to the kids," he said.
"The best thing I can do for Maui and the ocean is to get the kids educated," he said.
The 8th grade is particularly important as students make the transition to high school. Success in reading and science is critical to their educational success. His long-term hope is that these Lokelani students will grow and learn to make good decisions, especially in the voting booth, and possibly create the changes in the community that have frustrated and eluded him.
The efforts of Baker and James and the teachers at Lokelani appear to be paying off. Test scores at Lokelani have risen above the state average in math and English. James called the improvement "our little miracle" and attributed the success to great teachers and to the support of Baker.
"A big part of that (success) is him helping us out," said James.
She applauded Baker's method of providing funds directly to the classrooms. She noted that many grants and major corporate donations don't trickle down to them.
"We're hoping to start a little trend here," said James. "Others could adopt teachers and get something directly to the classroom."
Actually, Baker did provide some "apples" to the teachers. He bought them three iPads.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.