For the love of keiki

LIHUE – She dined with President Jimmy Carter. She was a guest at a dinner with the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. She escorted Sen. Bob Dole on a helicopter ride around Kauai and she guided Prince and Princess Hitachi from Japan on island tours.

It was all a very busy time for Phyllis Kunimura.

But Kunimura hasn’t slowed down since her days as an advocate of early childhood development and her responsibility as the wife of Tony Kunimura, who served as Kauai’s mayor during the 1980s and as a state legislator during the 60s and 70s.

“He was a very active and colorful man,” Kunimura remembered of her late husband. “Very charismatic with children and adults.”

They were quite the power couple, with Kunimura right in step with her husband the entire time. During those busy years, she traveled to Beijing to attend the inaugural International Early Childhood Development Conference in the early 90s.

Between her 34 years as a politician’s wife; more than 30 years as a kindergarten teacher and 26 years as the owner of a Kapaa preschool, Kunimura maintains high visibility on Kauai in the early education circuit.

“I’ve seen generations change,” said Kunimura, who oversees 81 keiki enrolled in her K.I.D.S preschool. “I’ve seen parenting styles change. It seems like parents are so much more fear based today. If a child gets dirty, the kids want to run to mommy and she wants to wrap them in a bubble.”

That is why she is an advocate of classes where parents can learn how the brain is developed.

“The more they understand, for example, that playing in the dirt helps build up their immune system for when a cold comes around, the better off their children will be,” Kunimura said.

She is a believer in the importance of stimulating the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

“For me, I look at everything, whether it is a bump, it’s usually a need and I try to see what that need is — whether it’s education or politics — see what you can actively do,” Kunimura said.

She’s testified several times before the state legislature about topics including the need for creative programs to stimulate brain activity. But it’s not just in politics or the classroom where she’s made an impact.

The Poipu resident co-founded the popular Koloa Plantation Days 29 years ago and is an avid painter, where a couple of her pieces are part of the permanent collection at the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Created on Kauai, one is a close-up view of the Kapaa Wine and Liquor store and the other is a close up of St. William Church in Hanalei. She loves to mix history with art.

“It’s important to know our foundation and where we came from,” Kunimura said. “Whether it’s your family, your community that you live in or the island. It’s important.”


This is an ongoing weekly feature in The Garden Island. It focuses on everyday people who reflect the spirit that makes Kauai the place it is today. If you know of somebody you’d like to see featured, email features and education reporter Lisa Ann Capozzi at


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