Kanee Wright lives up to her name.
"My middle name is Happy, because I was born on New Year's Day," she says. "I don't ever think about my name being 'Happy,' it's just something inside of me, my feeling of life - just being happy."
The 83-year-old Kaunakakai resident is an employee and volunteer at Molokai's Home Pumehana, where she serves meals-on-wheels to the homebound elderly, and helps with cleaning, deliveries and other chores. She says working keeps her active and engaged with life.
Kanee Wright was honored as the female Outstanding Older American of Maui County at an awards luncheon May 6 at the Maui Beach Hotel.
County of Maui / RYAN PIROS photo
"I enjoy my work, and I love helping people, meeting people and just talking story," she says. "Whenever anybody needs my help, I'm there."
Wright was recently recognized as one of Maui County's "Outstanding Older Americans" for 2014. She expressed her gratitude to the staff and residents of Home Pumehana for supporting her.
Wright was born in Waimea, on the Big Island, and was raised by her grandfather, although she remained close to her father.
"I used to call both fathers 'Dad,' " she says. "My grandpa was Dad Number One, and my dad was Dad Number Two."
Both men were cowboys for Parker Ranch, and Wright grew up riding horses and learning the paniolo way of life.
"Those days, they used to take the cattle down to Kawaihae (Harbor) to ship to Honolulu," she recalls. "They would leave home at 12 o'clock at night and drive the cattle down the hill."
She says her grandfather taught her a love of the rural lifestyle, the value of a strong work ethic, and the importance of appreciating what you have.
"He always told me, 'You just be happy you have a roof over your head and food in your stomach,' " she says.
Wright went on to live on Oahu, where she worked at the Del Monte Cannery as a trimmer and forelady during canning, and picked pineapple in the fields during summers. She and her husband, Ernest Wright, moved in 1978 to Molokai, where they've happily made a home.
She says Molokai reminds her of growing up in rural Waimea, nearly 80 years ago.
"I love it," she says. "It's simple. That's what I like about Molokai - the friendly people, the surroundings. It's the last of the Hawaiian Islands that's been left Hawaiian."
Working with the elderly at Home Pumehana has given her some insights into healthy aging. She says her key to staying vibrant is to keep busy and hold on to a positive attitude.
"My secret is, just don't think about getting old," she says. "We already know we're old. Some of (the patients), they kind of fall back. I tell them, 'Think of the good things, and that kind of lifts your spirit up.'"
And she tries to practice what she preaches.
"Sometimes, when you give that advice, you have to do it yourself," she says. "If you tell them to be happy, and you're not happy, they're going to think, 'Why isn't she happy?'"
When she's not working or volunteering, Wright enjoys spending time with her family.
"I just love my grandchildren, they're always there to help me," she says. "Grandchildren bring joy and keep you young. You always have to be on your toes."
She has six children, many grandchildren, many great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
"I lost count," she says with a laugh over the phone. "I gotta go home and count that out. I know I have many, and I love them all."
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.