Jo Kahiapo works her magic behind the scenes.

She spends 10 hours a day at Northwest Middle School, assisting the student council, setting up park and talent-show field trips and teaching traditional Polynesian dances. She even twists money into flowers and bow ties for student- of-the-month honorees and helps coordinate luncheons in their honor.Money is not the motivator. Kids are.

"She believes she should be a service for people," said principal Rosemary Baron. "She's a humble, beautiful person."

Kahiapo was honored in recent weeks as the Salt Lake City School District's volunteer of the year.

"I really didn't expect anything like that . . . where I belong is in the background," Kahiapo said of the honor. "It's just something to do to keep me out of mischief."

Kahiapo has volunteered in the school since she moved from the beaches of Honolulu to the mountain snow of Utah two years ago. She lost her husband four years earlier and decided to try working near her sister, Naomi Kauhane, a physical education teacher at Northwest Middle School.

The grandmother of 16 was a hit from the beginning. She, Kauhane and teacher mentor Mary Morris put their heads together to form a group where Polynesian students could learn cultural dances and songs. The aim is to give students incentive for academic achievement.

To perform with the group, the some 60 students had to pull their grades from failing to C's or better. Students attended weekly tutoring sessions, rehearsals and submitted progress reports every three weeks.

Now, 34 of those students are being recognized by the U.S. Office of Ethnic Affairs for their academic achievement, Kau-hane said.

The group is finishing up performances at the school, donning costumes Kahiapo helped make. The school also has a luau, complete with fresh orchids, flower leis and palms Kahiapo has shipped in from Hawaii.

This year, Kahiapo became the morning coordinator of the Positive Alternative to School Suspension program, for which she earns 14.5 hours pay each week. She spends weekends preparing packets of alternative assignments.

Whether attempting to turn around a student, setting up chairs for a banquet or tidying up the auditorium, Kahiapo thrives on helping maintain the school's energy. The kids also fill an important place in her heart.

"I think I miss my grandchildren. I guess this fills the gap," said Kahiapo, wiping a tear. But she'll see them again in the Aloha State this summer.

"I tell Naomi, `When I do this work, I'm building sky miles.' "