An arial shot of students participating in a beach cleanup

Giving Back to the ʻĀina on your Trip to Hawaii

Hawaii is undeniably an incredibly special place, and depending on the ways in which you experience it, you might have this same thought for different reasons. Yes, the beaches, the mountains, the food, and its creatures are stunningly beautiful, delicious, and fascinating. But if I had to choose one thing that is most special about Hawaii, it would be the Aloha spirit (best experienced firsthand rather than read about on the Internet, but I’ll indulge you).

Views of Pu'u Ohulehule Oahu

The word Aloha encompasses so much – it means hello and goodbye. It means love, and perhaps most importantly, it means to give life. The Aloha spirit recognizes that the divine (God) is in everything and everything is God, from the mountains to the waves, to the wind, to the fish, and to the trees. To visit Hawaii and to not engage with this notion would be to miss a big part of what Hawaii is to its people. To learn about Hawaii’s agricultural and ecological landscape and to give back to the communities that take care of and invest in the many sacred resources that Hawaii has to offer is to travel pono.

Pono means to do what is right, and to travel pono means to understand the connectivity of our earth and to travel with care and respect to people and places.

Community work in the taro patches

To that end, I have gathered a list of volunteer opportunities to give back to the ʻāina (the Hawaiian word for land) on your next trip to Hawaii. Perhaps you’ll consider lending a hand on a restoration hiking project with your fiancé or friend, or you will take the opportunity to teach your kids about micro plastics during your day in Kailua. Whatever the circumstances of your trip to Hawaii, I hope you will consider taking the opportunity to learn about prominent issues and lend your hands and your heart.

Do this, and you might be able to say that you travel pono – and you might even have the chance to have a conversation with a local and ask them what this means!! The same is true for malama aina – so read on to learn more.

A sunrise over Waimanalo

Malama ʻĀina

Papahana Kuaola

Papahana Kuaola’s mission is to cultivate ʻāina (land) and kānaka (humans) to nurture learning, relationships, and lifestyles that enable all Hawaiʻi to thrive. Papahana typically organizes bimonthly community workdays, and in normal, non-pandemic times, up to 200 people show up to work in the taro patches and trim brush. Right now, community work day space is significantly limited and requires registration in advance. Though Papahana Kuaola may or may not have the space capacity for you to join a community workday right now, be sure to check out their Online Learning Resources on their website, and dive deeper into Hawaiian culture!

Students working in the taro patches

Kailua Beach Adventures

Kailua Beach Adventures is an eco-tourism company certified by the Hawaii Eco-Tourism Association – the leading authority on Sustainable Tourism. Aside from providing kayak tours and SUP lessons, during which guides share ecological and historical information of the bay, Kailua Beach Adventures organizes activities for the community to volunteer, come together, and clean Oahu’s beaches!

Volunteers using micro-sand sifters
A beach cleanup hosted in partnership with the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation. Photo by Kellie Spriggs.

Kailua Beach is inarguably one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, though once you see it, you can’t unsee all of the micro plastics that occupy the sand everywhere. While this is sad to see, it is also incredibly powerful in inspiring action and motivation to be a part of the solution. Our ocean’s health, and our health very much depend on it.

This video of micro plastics being removed from the sand demonstrates the severity and the scope of this issue.

In addition to organizing quarterly beach cleanups and annual Earth Day events, Kailua Beach Adventures lends individual sand sifters to the public on a daily basis. This would be an educational and empowering activity to include in your day spent on the beach in Kailua! KBA also created a video on how to create your own sand sifter, DIY style!

A KBA guide and my friend Tomo hauling a HUGE load of debris; ropes, lines, and plastic back to shore and out of the ocean. As a sea kayak guide, our job first and foremost was to keep guests safe and teach them about the bay, but we are always doing what we can to promote ocean health!

808 Beach Clean Ups

Whether you live in Hawaii or are visiting, 808 Cleanups invites all to join them on their volunteer projects! Though clean ups are currently limited due to COVID19, their Adopt a Site Program is still active, and they always offer opportunities to support fundraising efforts and educate yourself and others to be a force for positive change.

Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation fights for reducing plastic pollution, protecting our oceans, improving access to beaches, and more. Their Ocean Friendly Restaurants program is one program of many – this one designed to combat single-use plastic distribution, to ensure proper recycling practices, and to eliminate the use of styrofoam containers. Check out their Quick Guide for restaurants today – you could be one of their 672 ocean-friendly restaurants nation-wide!

Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation

The Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation is a local, non-profit organization that seeks to provide environmental education to students so that they will choose to be lifelong stewards of the earth. This organization was founded by Kim and Jack Johnson. You might recognize Jack Johnson as a singer/songwriter, but he is also a surfer, environmental activist, and North Shore local. They have a variety of programs including the 3R’s School Recycling Program, the AINA in Schools program, and Plastic Free Hawaii. Kokua Hawaii co-hosts beach cleanups in partnership with Kailua Beach Adventures, so keep an eye out for their upcoming cleanup volunteer opportunities!

An arial shot of students participating in a beach cleanup
Photo credit: Kellie Spriggs

Sierra Club Hawaii

In normal conditions, the Sierra Club provides a plethora of hikes and service programs. They organize opportunities to help build trails, care for newly planted trees as part of the reforestation project, and more. If weeding and working in the soil isn’t your thing, you can check out their advocacy and litigation work which are just as important endeavors. Supporting these efforts by getting on the phone, signing online bills, and writing to people in office is another way to get involved and to learn about prevalent issues in Hawaii.

*Find Covid updates at the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Hawaii Conservation Alliance

This alliance is a partnership of organizations and agencies seeking to conserve and restore native ecosystems and the unique biodiversity of Hawaii. Be sure to explore further volunteer opportunities through the Hawaii Conservation Alliance website.

Hawaiian Culture

Lastly, protecting our planet’s resources and acknowledging the flow of all life in Hawaii is something that infiltrates culture and conversations at every level, every day.

It’s discussed and exemplified in organizational culture through marketing strategies, through olis, and through popular music.

For example, one of my favorite Hawaiian artists, Tavana, recently released a song called Plastic Island featuring Paul Izak. The goal in writing this song is to bring awareness to how significant the plastic problem is, not only in Hawaii but everywhere in the world. To further illustrate this issue, the music video is created with unaltered pieces of plastic collected from local beaches throughout Hawaii. The multi-dimensional artist Charles-Antoine Vallieres supported this project.

Furthermore, local companies like Hawaiian Airlines often highlight and discuss what it means to travel pono – especially right now in these challenging circumstances as they relate to COVID19. Do give thought to how you can travel responsibly with respect to the places and people that you wish to visit.

*Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the devastation from recent flooding on the island. People of the islands came together in big ways last week to coordinate donations, lend equipment, and organize clean-up efforts. While the centralized relief efforts for last week’s flood have come to a close, efforts are still being made to deliver specific items of need to households. For locals who live on Oahu, visit the Haleiwa Flood Relief website and scroll down to join the volunteer list and be informed of future opportunities to help the community.

I sincierely hope that you will have the opportunity to get your feet wet and volunteer and give back to the āina. If you do, I am confident that you will come away with a deeper, firsthand understanding of just how much locals care about the aina and this planet’s wellbeing, and I bet that you will become more invested, too. Aloha, friends!

Windward Oahu beach cleanup
Me helping to facilitate a beach cleanup with Kailua Beach Adventures and the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation on Earth Day in 2019!
A smiling paddleboarder


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