Tee Ropati considered a plumeria lei at a roadside stand in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood Sunday afternoon. She was thinking ahead for a relative’s graduation from East Anchorage High School, scheduled for Monday night.
“Leis show how proud we are,” Ropati said.
The lei stand, in a parking lot at the corner of 15th Avenue and Ingra Street pops up for a week or so every May, just in time for a wave of graduations at Anchorage high schools that kicks off Monday, when students at Dimond and East will receive their diplomas.
Sales raise money for Body of Christ Grace Life Ministry, said Judy Masalosalo, a church member who was working there Sunday. The Government Hill church has been selling leis for 16 years, she said.
Gifting leis to graduates is a tradition rooted in the Pacific Islands that has moved far beyond Anchorage’s Polynesian community.
“There are Polynesians, Samoans, Tongans,” Masalosalo said. “But other people have picked it up too. Everyone is buying them these days.”
Each year, her church’s pastor and his wife fly to Honolulu to pick up a huge order of flowers, keeping the blooms in refrigerated coolers.
Back in Anchorage, women from the church gather to sew the flowers into leis by hand, Masalosalo said.
There are at least a dozen vendors selling leis at graduations across the city. Each year, her stand alone sells about 1,000 leis.
The classic ones are made of fragrant plumeria or delicate orchid, Masalosalo said. Ti leaves, a Hawaiian plant believed to bring good luck, are twisted into braids studded with plumeria.
But lei makers have long since moved beyond flowers alone. Shiny black kukui nuts are strung together and painted in school colors, or with messages like “Jesus Loves You.” Shiny double-braided satin ribbon leis take hours to make.
Dollar bills are folded into origami for money leis that dispense a graduation gift of cash -- usually about $50 total, said Ropati.
Her mom was at Costco stocking up on supplies to make candy leis, which feature small candies twisted in plastic wrap and divided by ribbon.
There’s no limit to the creativity: Ropati said she’s heard of leis featuring saran-wrapped Big Macs and cheeseburgers.