Kumu Leihua’s Lessons

The words ‘I cannot’ don’t exist in her classroom—or her life Photo by Sean M. Hower

Leihua Kalawaiʻa, or Kumu Leihua as her students call her, teaches Hawaiian studies—everything from singing simple songs on the ʻukulele with grade school students to reciting Hawaiian proverbs with high schoolers.

Not only is she teaching them Hawaiian culture, but some critical life lessons as well. Maybe most importantly, she’s showing them not to let a setback in life hold them back or define them. 

In the summer of 2019, Kalawaiʻa was in a life-threatening auto accident, which resulted in her right arm—the arm with which she plays the ʻukulele—being amputated just below her elbow. “My goal was to come back and play ʻukulele with the kids,” she said. “They were my saving grace.” 

It’s good to have goals 

After she left Maui Memorial Medical Center’s intensive care unit, Kalawaiʻa headed to the hospital’s fourth floor where she started her recovery process. 

“The first thing I wanted to do was get my hand on a ʻukulele and figure out how to play,” she recalled.

Kalawai’a started strumming with one hand and attempting to hold chords. She was inspired by watching YouTuber play with one hand. But she tried to copy him and was left feeling frustrated.

Instead, she switched gears and focused on learning to write with her left hand. “It made my fingers stronger,” she said. “It just helped my brain to block out the fact I was missing my right hand.”

Her first goal was to get out of the hospital within a month, and she did so with three days to spare. The next goal was to figure out how to play the ʻukulele again.

That required some creativity. 

A close friend helped her tie rope around “Stumpalicious,” the nickname affectionately given to her right arm, and she used a GoPro clip mount to strum the instrument.

That invention evolved into replacing the rope with a thicker backpack strap, trimming down the clip mount and screwing on a guitar pick—the method she still uses to this day. 


Photo by Sean M. Hower

Appreciate the little things

Kalawaiʻa, 43, carefully takes her thin-bodied ʻukulele named Ola, the Hawaiian word for “life,” out of its case before gently strumming and quietly singing as a rooster crows in the background. 

She’s currently between teaching duties at Haleakalā Waldorf High School, located on the grounds of the Hui Noʻeau Visual Arts Center in Makawao.

Earlier in the day, she sang and recited chants with her sophomore students, and later this afternoon she’ll continue preparations for the school-wide Makahiki Games—modeled after the games played each winter in ancient Hawaiʻi.

While Kalawaiʻa says she can’t strum as fast as she used to, she seems at peace with that.

She tried out a prosthetic arm, but stopped wearing it earlier this year after it fell off while playing ʻukulele in front of her students. Still, it had some advantages. 

“I hadn’t buttoned my shorts in three years. That’s the first thing I did,” she said. “It’s the little things you take for granted: shaking hands with the kids, opening a door, turning on a water faucet. We never even realize how blessed we are to pull up our shorts, to use a knife to cut an onion, to brush your teeth with your dominant hand.”

Along with teaching at the high school, Kalawaiʻa instructs grades one-through-eighth at Haleakalā Waldorf School in Kula. Starting in third grade, she works with students to recite portions of the Kumulipo, or Hawaiian creation chant. 

Her students, especially the younger ones, are naturally curious and will often ask questions about “Stumpalicious.” Probably her most common question is if she can feel her fingers.

She answers “yes,” or ‘ae in Hawaiian, and demonstrates how she can still move each digit at the end of her limb. “If I’m honest and vulnerable, we will build a better connection that way,” she said. 

Live with aloha 

Born and raised in upcountry Maui, Kalawaiʻa learned to play the ʻukulele at age 11.

Her father, Samuel, was a musician who played at Kāʻanapali Beach Hotel as well as in bands such as 1,000 Pounds of Melody. He died in 2005, but his legacy lives on in his daughter’s music. 

With his encouragement, she learned old-school Hawaiian music on the uke before starting to play more modern tunes she heard on the radio.

While her father helped teach her to play the instrument, her Kalama Intermediate School teacher, Rama Camarillo, ignited a passion for it.

“Leihua was such a pleasure to have in class, and I could always count on her to be ready to perform, and always singing from her heart,” recalled Camarillo, who now teaches ʻukulele at Kamehameha Schools Maui.  

Kalawaiʻa graduated from Maui High School in 1997 and the following year met her longtime partner, Nohea Stephens. They both worked at the movie theater at Maui Mall; Kalawaiʻa was the projectionist, while Stephens was the concession manager.

The pair married in 2012, the same year Kalawaiʻa started at the Institute of Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawaii Maui College. “I didn’t graduate, but I learned music theory,” she said. 

While Stephens said her wife has lived with aloha for as long as she’s known her, Kalawaiʻa says it wasn’t always that way. 

Growing up, Kalawaiʻa refers to herself as someone who “just stayed angry because it was easier.” Her catalyst for change was wanting to be more like her younger sister, Kaleio.

“I wanted to be open and honest and live with aloha,” she said. “Going through that transition taught me I was capable of loving myself. I learned to love others, accept their ideas. I learned how to take people for who they are and to not use judgment. That’s the greatest thing we can give is aloha. Aloha for yourself and for everyone else.”


Photo by Sean M. Hower

Practice makes perfect 

Throughout her life, Kalawaiʻa has worked a variety of jobs. Even after landing her part-time teaching position in 2016, she cleaned homes on the side.

It was on her way to cleaning a house with her nephew that her life would change forever. Ten days after her 40th birthday, they were headed from Kanaio towards Kula when their Toyota 4Runner tumbled down an embankment. 

Thankfully, a passerby was able to stop and tourniquet her arm before getting to the hospital. Once there, she endured a four-hour surgery to amputate her arm.

During her stay in the hospital, Kalawaiʻa had four additional procedures to change her bandages. “Everyone kept coming in sad and crying,” she recalled. 

So she decided to inject some levity into the situation. “I would say, ‘meet Stumpalicious, and everybody started laughing instead of feeling pity,” she said.

Her mother, known as Ma Geri, died of lung cancer about six months before the accident, but her presence continues to be greatly felt. 

“My mom’s mentality is, ‘You’ll be OK. You’re good. Move on. Move forward,’” she said.

That philosophy has stuck with Kalawaiʻa and helped her through some challenging times, such as helping her nephew, the driver of the SUV, come to terms with the accident and its aftermath. 

Despite her positive attitude, Kalawaiʻa can also get discouraged sometimes. 

“When I think of making lei, I get quite depressed. I can still sew but I’m unable to hilo, to twist,” she said. “However, I’m looking forward to doing that again one day.”

Like she has proven before, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“That’s my philosophy in life: practice, practice, practice. It’s been that way with everything since ‘Stumpalicious’ came along into my life,” she said. “I go through the frustration, deal with it and continue to practice. The words ‘I cannot’ do not exist in my classroom. If you say ‘I cannot’ you stop yourself from your own greatness before you even try.” 



Mike Morris