2015 Alumni of the Year: April Uyehara – ’99

Zooming down a zip line for the first time can be an exhilarating experience. The wind in your hair, the lift under your feet, and the excitement in your stomach. “I felt like I was flying,” exclaims a young child with a big smile who has been confined to a wheelchair due to a medical condition.

In moments like these, you know that a rare and in many cases, life changing experience is taking place.

For thousands of youngsters, April Uyehara, a King Kekaulike High School Class of 1999 graduate, has been doing just that – creating life changing opportunities through an organization called, The Painted Turtle. A non-profit residential camp, The Painted Turtle encourages children and their family to reach beyond their serious illness and discover joy, confidence and a new world of possibilities.

Uyehara first volunteered for the organization in 2001 while still attending college and for five summers worked at a sister camp in Florida. In 2007, after receiving her graduate degree, she began year-round work for The Painted Turtle.

Today, she serves as the Director of Programs and Initiatives, a leadership position for the camp located in Southern California.

Founded by Paul Newman, the camp is part of SeriousFun Children’s Network, a worldwide network of camps and programs serving children with serious medical conditions.

The camp provides on-site medical support that allows The Painted Turtle to provide a unique and safe camp experience to children with special medical needs. They serve over 30 medical condition groups through their family weekend and summer camp sessions.

At the camp, there are all the traditional camp activities: woodshop, arts and crafts, horseback riding, teambuilding games, creative arts programming, fishing, boating, swimming, campfires, the high ropes course and zip lining.

According to Uyehara, life outside of camp for many of their campers may mean a series of medical procedures, hospital stays, and isolation from their peers.

“When kids are at camp they connect with other children who take the same medicines, have the same scars, and share similar experiences,” she said.

The Painted Turtle strives to provide an environment that is physically and emotionally safe, uplifting, fun, a place where they can sing, dance, develop important friendships and be a place where campers are free to be themselves.

“After seeing what their child accomplishes at camp, parents have gone to their child’s school to advocate for their child and changed their child’s IEP, this time with a new goal to graduate from high school,” said Uyehara.

“Painted Turtle campers overcome a great deal in their lives. And when they’re at camp, believe me, they are kids in the purest form,” she said.

Working at The Painted Turtle was a natural fit, according to Trisha Grimley, former KKHS Student Activities coordinator, “April has always been a compassionate, service oriented person, in high school, in college, in her personal life and in her career,” she said.

“April is passionate about her job and seeks to offer the best experiences for the hundreds of children who attend the week long camps,” said Grimley.

Uyehara graduated from Perpperdine University in 2003 with a Bachelors of Arts in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Elementary Education. She went on to receive a Master of Arts Degree in Education with a concentration in Child Life from Mills College in 2006.

She credits Kekaulike for preparing her well for college.

“Throughout high school, my teachers were supportive and empowering, showing me that hard work pays off,” says Uyehara.

“I tried a lot of things in high school – classes, sports teams, clubs – I found a few things I loved and was pretty good at and other activities where I was not nearly as good, but in everything that I participated in, I was encouraged and accepted,” she said.

She noted that the KKHS not only allowed her to identify passions in life, but it also taught her how to face and overcome challenges.

“My KKHS education gave me such a strong foundation going into college, my career and the community, which has helped shape me to be the best version of myself,” she said.

In keeping with her spirit of helping others, in 2010, Uyehara began a journey to document an act of kindness, service, or highlight an organization for every single day of the year on her blog, serve365.blogspot.com. Twelve months later on November 24, 2011 she accomplished her goal of posting 365 entries, one for each day of the year.

At the conclusion of her project she wrote, “I’ve been inspired by each organization, each individual, and every story. And, most of all, I’ve learned that if you look for service, you will see it around you every single day. It can be as simple as a Snuggie or as strong as standing up for a survivor. It can be something huge someone does around the world or it can be in your neighborhood or in your good thoughts. You can help save the planet or sing. Use your passion to make a difference.”

“If you look for it, if you listen for it, service is all around you,” Uyehara concluded.

It is because of this passion for serving others and making a difference one small step at a time, that King Kekaulike Alumni Association is proud to name April Uyehara as our 2015 Alumni of the Year.

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