Gina Teliho calls Kula “a special slice of Hawaiian heaven” and counts herself lucky to live in that verdant Upcountry Maui district about a third of the way up Haleakala Volcano’s western slopes.

“Kula is beautiful; look around and you see green everywhere,” she said. “Daytime temperatures rarely go above the mid-70s, so people spend a lot of time outdoors hiking, biking, camping, gardening and picnicking. It’s far from Maui’s resort and major shopping areas so it’s quiet, and it has the close-knit sense of community that you find in small towns and rural places. No matter where you’re from, you immediately feel relaxed and happy in Kula.”

That’s especially evident every November, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when Kula Elementary School hosts a big fundraiser on its large grassy field, which overlooks spectacular views of Maui’s central isthmus, the West Maui Mountains and the north and south shores of the island.

Now in its 32nd year, the Harvest Festival is organized and implemented by the school’s Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) with the help of hundreds of other volunteers. Businesses pitch in too, donating materials to build games; items for the silent auction; crafts, plants, produce and baked goods for the Country Store and much more — all to benefit the students.

Proceeds support enrichment programs in music, dance, art and agriculture. Kula is Maui’s breadbasket, and many of the homes there are surrounded by farms. Within a mile of Teliho’s house are a cattle ranch and farms that grow fruits and vegetables of all kinds. Many of her family’s meals have been made entirely from ingredients produced by those neighbors.

“Even better, we’ve been able to start a garden on campus with money raised at the festival,” said Teliho, PTA president and co-chair of this year’s event. “My kids are excited to talk about the plants they’re taking care of in the school’s garden, and they’ve brought home sunflower, dahlia, marigold, lima bean and sweet potato seedlings that are thriving next to the avocado, mango and citrus trees in our backyard orchard.”

Festival funds also cover salaries for a part-time librarian and part-time art, music, gardening and physical education teachers. And they pay for traveling shows such as those put on by the Hawaii Opera Theatre and Vicki White, “The Science Lady,” who comes from California to wow audiences at Maui schools with her amazing science-related demonstrations.

“None of that would be possible otherwise,” Teliho said. “Thanks to the festival, we’re also able to help teachers buy educational games, supplies for projects and other learning tools that aren’t in the school’s budget. That’s why it’s so important for the event to be a huge success.”

Expect a full day of homegrown, country-style fun. You can get acquainted with pigs, goats, puppies, chickens, ducks, miniature horses, rabbits and a tortoise at the petting zoo. There will be pony rides for little cowpokes and hayrides for everyone. At the Creation Station, discover your inner artist by making a snow globe, stringing a fresh flower lei and turning rocks into works of art with paint pens and brushes.

Professional artist and craftsman Joe Bernd, whose two children attend Kula School, built most of the dozen games himself. For example, you can “feed” the Hungry Spiders, giant spiders covered with Velcro, by throwing pingpong balls on them. Angry Mynahs is a 6-foot slingshot that shoots dodgeballs at collapsible targets. New this year is Bullseye, which challenges players to hit spinning targets with darts.

Nonstop entertainment showcases Maui’s rich pool of musical talent. Among the groups taking the stage will be Kula School’s preschool and fourth-grade classes; a jazz band from King Kekaulike High School in Makawao; and Halau Ke‘ala Kahinano O Puna, a children’s hula school from Kula.

Food will be another big draw. This year’s offerings include sweet and savory crepes from Crepes D’Amour; Puerto Rican specialties from Pastele House Maui; and tacos, quesadillas and other Mexican fare from Horhitos Mobile Taqueria. Outrigger Pizza Co. will be bringing a clay oven to make ono pizzas on the spot, and the PTA’s refreshing lemonade will be the perfect accompaniment to everything.

“Vice President Stacy Downs leads that effort and oversees our stand all day,” Teliho said. “A few days before the festival, volunteers gather to make simple syrup and squeeze juice from hundreds of pounds of donated lemons. It’s all frozen immediately and thawed for use on festival day. We serve the lemonade ice cold in mood cups. It’s wildly popular.”

A pie contest, open to amateur and professional bakers, will debut this year. Although the entries won’t be known until the morning of the festival, there’s a good chance some will feature ingredients Kula is known for such as sweet onions and strawberries. The pies will be judged on taste, creativity, appearance and overall impression.

Teliho’s favorite attraction is the Country Store, which is chock-full of merchandise donated by parents, teachers, administrators, Kula residents and people who have no personal connection to the area or Kula School but want to help.

“The extent and depth of Maui’s goodwill is reflected in the array of things at the store,” Teliho said. “The Harvest Festival’s theme this year is ‘Caring for Our Community.’ That sums up its driving force and the spirit that pervades the entire event. There’s aloha everywhere!”

IF YOU GO: HARVEST FESTIVAL

>> Where: Kula Elementary School, 5000 Kula Highway, Kula, Maui

>> When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 23

>> Cost: Free; crafts, lunch, produce, baked goods and more will be available for sale.

>> Info: 808-876-0122, kulaharvestfest@gmail.com or go to kulaharvestfest.com

>> Notes: There will be free parking at Kula Park adjacent to the school. The venue is accessible for people with disabilities.


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.