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Kupu Raises Hawaii’s Future Environmental Leaders

Kupu volunteers during a team-building event. ©Kupu
Kupu volunteers during a team-building event. ©Kupu

Kupu means “to sprout or grow” in Hawaiian. It’s also the name of a nonprofit based in Honolulu, Hawaii, helping young people to grow into torch bearers for the environment by instilling in them aloha ʻāina or “love of the land.”

Starting out in 2007, Kupu’s founding principle was to empower future generations to create a more sustainable Hawaii. It was established by John Leong, the organization’s chief executive officer, in response to a growing need to train local young people in natural resource management. Building on the AmeriCorps model, which provides people power and funding to community projects across the US, Leong and his team developed an extensive partnership network of projects working to support the local environment and to provide energetic young volunteers with funded placements. Kupu’s efforts have been rewarded: it won the accolade of charity of the year when it received a 2021 Better Business Bureau Torch Award.

Leong explains, “Since 2007, Kupu has grown from a startup nonprofit to where we are today, as Hawaii's largest youth-focused conservation nonprofit. We have been able to grow by focusing on strategies that uplift everyone involved, from the young people we serve to the partners we place them with. Because everyone ends up better off than if they had not partnered with Kupu, we are able to grow in a sustainable way.”

Making an Impact on the Community

Kupu’s record is impressive. It has trained more than 5000 young people, providing them with opportunities that can lead to professions in sustainability. Its impact on the community has also been significant—over 151,000 acres of land have been cleared of invasive species and more than 1.5 million native plants have been planted. What’s more, 87% of the Kupu alumni surveyed were working in or towards a career in the environmental field within one year of completing their time with the organization.

Kupu has achieved this success by offering a range of opportunities. Its Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps (HYCC) programs give young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 the chance to learn about conservation in a team setting. Volunteers join a variety of organizations for two to four months, during which they participate in outdoor restoration efforts. The scheme helps young people looking for mentorship support to complete their secondary education and those who want to earn a college credit or receive education awards for their efforts.

Meanwhile, individuals who want to gain in-depth professional development experience in the green economy are placed with a single organization, usually for up to one year. This enables them to develop a deeper insight into their project or research. The program is for college students and young professionals with previous work experience, academic studies, or a strong interest in natural or cultural resource management, sustainability, or environmental education.

Fostering Committed Volunteers

Young people return to the organization year after year. So how does Kupu foster such a loyal band of volunteers? The answer lies in its key benefits. Leong states, “Because most of the service opportunities we offer either provide compensation or are part of a pathway to a career in a green job, the people we work with already know what they are getting back and getting to be a part of.”

Ryan Ueunten ©Kupu
Ryan Ueunten. ©Kupu

These benefits are exactly what inspired Ryan Ueunten to take part in Kupu’s projects. He first signed up in 2015, while he was a student at the University of Hawaii after a friend told him Kupu would provide him with “a good foot in the door into the conservation world.” He decided to enroll in the HYCC program, which saw him lead a team of young adults in a variety of tasks from harvesting the root vegetable kalo (also known as taro) and pulling weeds to removing invasive species in the mountains and fixing fences.

A year later, Ueunten was back participating in Kupu’s conservation leadership development program. He was placed with the Natural Area Reserves Systems, run by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, part of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife. During that time, he managed native ecosystems, protecting rare plant and animal species.

Learning from Hands-on Experience

“When I first joined Kupu, I was also an undergraduate at the university studying global environmental science. I was learning about all these things through my teachers or through textbooks or PowerPoint presentations or videos. But you don't really see everything through a video or people talking. When you actually get the chance to be in these places and be on the land with professionals doing this job every day and talking with them and learning from them—that's a whole world that you get to learn about.”

He adds, “The connections with other people in the conservation world here in Hawaii were huge. Many of the people I met through Kupu, I still talk to today.”

Ueunten, who went on to gain a master’s degree in natural resources and environmental management, now works with Kauluakalana, a community-based nonprofit that tries to connect people to 'āina (the land).'

The Joy of Passing on Knowledge

Karlee Eugenio ©Kupu
Karlee Eugenio. ©Kupu

Karlee Eugenio, an environmental science graduate, is another of Kupu’s volunteers. Her placement was with Mālama Learning Center (MLC), a nonprofit that promotes sustainability. According to her spotlight profile, Eugenio’s tasks are varied. She does everything from working in a nursery and teaching school groups about plants to carrying out restoration on the organization’s sites.

She enjoys working with young people in Hawaii. She says, “I love being able to share what I know and teaching them about our unique ecosystems. I also enjoy collaborating with educators in our Wai Huihia workshops that we host.” During the workshops, Eugenio works with community educators, who integrate conservation work and traditional ecological knowledge into their teaching.

She continues, “Learning alongside these educators to see how we can improve our approach to educating and impacting the hearts of youth is something that I honestly love about what I do in this position. I always knew I wanted to be a part of something that is much larger than myself, and the realms of both education and conservation were the ones that called my name.”

Listening to the Community is a Key to Success

“There is so much innovation happening right now, and I would hesitate to say what others have to learn from us. In terms of what has helped us, I would encourage others to be humble enough to listen and brave enough to take risks. Learning from others and taking chances are two things that have helped us get where we are today, and hopefully it will position us to continue to serve Hawai’i and our world for a long time,” states Leong.

Has Kupu learned any lessons along the way? Leong sums up his approach: “We have learned that, if we focus on understanding the people we serve and work with and determine how we can help them, success will follow.”


*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.


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