PODCAST: Meet the nonprofit building the next generation of environmental warriors

Kupu is the nonprofit on a mission to preserve the land while empowering youth.
Kupu is the nonprofit on a mission to preserve the land while empowering youth.(KUPU)
Published: Mar. 16, 2022 at 3:32 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 16, 2022 at 3:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - From cutting down invasive species with hand saws to planting produce and native plants across the islands, many hands are needed to restore and protect Hawaii’s unique environment.

Oftentimes, people in this line of work are from outside of Hawaii. But one group is trying to change that.

They want to build an army of environmental warriors from Hawaii and for Hawaii.

Kupu is the nonprofit on a mission to preserve the land while empowering youth. The organization offers a wide variety of individual and team-based programs. They partner youth with environmental groups across the state, giving them hands on experience in conservation and sustainability.

“Kupu’s focus is to get youth interested in the green jobs area, helping them get started in the field, engage them in service, and give them the heart to give back,” said Kupu’s CEO John Leong.

“The stigma was that local kids aren’t interested in conservation because the people filling these jobs were from outside of Hawaii, but what we realized is that we just needed to give young people an opportunity to get into these jobs.”

Leong and other members central to this work sat down with HNN to describe the many opportunities this organization offers in the third episode of “Repairing Earth.”

Among the interactive programs Kupu offers is the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps Summer Program. The program is open to those 16 and up, placing them in a variety of aina-based organizations, where they are able to get outdoors and learn the value of hard work.

During the two-month program, members learn by doing — working five days a week planting kalo at loi patches, dredging out ancient fish ponds, hiking and clearing trails for native plants to grow, and doing the work to protect nature reserves.

Since the nonprofit was founded in 2007, Kupu has provided opportunities to over 4,000 youth. And with their help, over 1 million native plants have been put into the ground and about 100,000 acres of invasive species have been removed, which is equivalent to 75,000 football fields.

Aside from the summer program, Kupu also offers an innovative diploma program for young people who aren’t succeeding in traditional classrooms.

The program is open to those 16 to 24, but most participants fall between the ages of 17 to 19.

“Our demographic faces numerous challenges — social, housing, homeless, toxic relationships — which can hinder success,” said Mahinalani Cavaleri, one of Kupu’s teachers. “Here, we offer them stability, consistency, and structure to learn and grow and thrive.”

In this program, youth are able to learn about agriculture on Kupu’s farm or culinary skills from highly trained chefs. They do this while also working toward a certificate of high school equivalency.

The opportunities that Kupu provides not only has a big impact on the land but it deeply inspires Hawaii’s youth.

“Personally I have seen the growth of our students,” Cavaleri said. “From those really trying moments out in the field, the sun’s beating down on them, they’re covered in dirt and they are probably just thinking about when they can go home — those are the moments that will stick with them and the sense of pride that washes over.”

While the work is hard, many who have seen and been a part of this process say there’s always more that can be done, and that caring for the land truly starts with us.

“My biggest takeaway from Kupu is that we keep going forward in one way or another and just find ways to keep integrating yourself into the community because its going to take a lot more people to actually make a dent in what needs to be done,” said Malia Aiello, who participated in the HYCC Summer Program.

“Who’s to say when all the goals, especially environmentally in Hawaii, will be reached, but as long as programs like Kupu exist, those goals will always be achievable.”

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