Kaleo's positive vibes
June 14, 2021Jim Oswald

We’re on a Zoom call together – the new-fangled way we all communicate these days in a COVID pandemic world.  We’re each fiddling with our respective laptop controls trying to make the audio better, the camera image sharper.

Glenn likes to go by the name Kaleo which he explains is Hawaiian and means “the voice.” At 64, he is on the younger side of our typical Meals on Wheels clients.

Are you Hawaiian, I ask?

“My grandfather lived in Hawaii as a seaman and then moved to SF to settle down having my mom and his family,” he explains. “That’s the only Polynesian roots I have but I was so fascinated with the culture that I wanted to learn about the art of Polynesian dance.”

Origins of Hula: It was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there. The hula dramatizes or portrays the words of the oli or mele in a visual dance form. There are many sub-styles of hula, with the main two categories being Hula ʻAuana and Hula Kahiko.

And so he did! His dream was to become a Kuma Hula (Hua instructor) so he started learning how to play the ukulele and drums as well as dancing through a Polynesian Dance Group called Tiare Otea in San Francisco.

Ten years of training flew by in a blink of an eye for Kaleo and after he graduated, his instructor helped him land gigs in Las Vegas performing two shows a night at the Lady Luck and Imperial Palace hotels. Kaleo made quite a name for himself in Vegas – at the start of each show, an announcer would introduce him and the performance with “Kaleo – what a man, what a voice!”  Kaleo and the troupe also competed and won numerous titles in Hawaii, Washing state, and Las Vegas.

In 2000, Kaleo was offered the opportunity of a lifetime — to be the entertainment manager for a major hotel on the island of Guam. The job would allow him to travel all around the Pacific, managing a troupe of 35 performers as well as designing costumes and choreography.

“I traveled all throughout Asia. I was even at the China 2000 Olympics and we did an exhibition to try and get people to come to Guam. I went to Korea for their World Soccer tournament too.

Kaleo was on cloud nine. In all, he traveled to Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia performing and managing the troupe.

In 2011, it all came to a screeching halt. Kaleo was having a hard time moving his right leg. He thought it was rheumatism, but an MRI revealed that the problem stemmed from a serious back injury requiring surgery.  The only medical facility nearest to him equipped to handle a serious surgery like this was in the Philippines, so Kaleo traveled there to have metal screw supports installed. Unfortunately, the screws started to pinch a nerve and as a result, he says, he suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him. He was only able to stand for a limited amount of time.

Kaleo faced a new life as a paraplegic and enduring physical therapy back in the Bay Area.

 “I was about 282 pounds when the first surgery occurred and was so depressed after I was paralyzed, I just lost my appetite, “Kaleo recounts.

During the months and years that followed, he lost 85 pounds which was probably good for his overall health, but unfortunately, he was not eating healthy and did not keep up with his nutritional needs. He attended a 23-day physical therapy program in Vallejo that was grueling. Upon finishing that, he returned back to San Francisco and tried to keep up with physical exercise beyond therapy which had weakened his bones. He was desperate to keep his weight down and even more so, wanted to be well enough to Hula again.

“One day, I thought I was, you know, a gymnastic person, and I just picked up my foot and tried to bring it in and I ended up breaking my femur bone.”

In 2018, Kaleo went through yet another surgery. Surgeons had to place pins to stabilize the bones and he was not able to do much of anything physical for a year. It was then that Kaleo was introduced to Meals on Wheels – a way for him to maintain a good healthy weight with the proper nutrition his body needed.

In 2019, wheelchair-bound, Kaleo, accompanied by a caregiver, traveled to both Guam and Las Vegas for a month -– a way to meet up with old friends, and fans.  He was greeted at the airport in Guam by more than 100 people who applauded as he wheeled through the gate.  The visit did him wonders and helped him build back up his confidence to get back out into the world.

“All of this built my confidence back up and I knew I can tackle what I have now. The wheelchair is just my ability to allow me to move around, I still have my upper arm movements, my upper strength is strong, I still have my mind, my chanting my singing, I sing away, it’s still held, I still get many groups that they need.”

In early 2020, Kaleo was scheduled to return to Hawaii to be a VIP judge for a competition but then the pandemic began, and all travel was cancelled. He says that during the first few months of shelter-in-place all of his hospital appointments and additional physical therapy stopped. He was thankful that his caregiver was still able to come over to help him and that Meals on Wheels provided him meals for his daily nutrition needs.

Kaleo is hopeful for a post-pandemic return to his life and to the world of Polynesian performance, even if only to observe and mentor other performers. He recently became a recipient of a SmartDrive – a motorized device that attaches to his wheelchair and is controlled by a little remote control worn on the wrist. It’s a game-changer for Kaleo as he tries to navigate his hilly neighborhood in the City.

“I feel more driven now knowing my strengths and weaknesses. I want to return back to Polynesia to finish where I started just before I got injured.”

These goals are what give Kaleo much hope and drive to continue to work hard, to keep fit and strong through physical therapy, and to keep nourished thanks to his friends at Meals on Wheels.

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