It’s Not Your Paradise: Something To Consider When Visiting Hawaiʻi

Food & Drink

Learn Native Hawaiian culture and show your gratitude by volunteering on Oʻahu.

Hawaiʻi is going through some rebranding.

Turns out, the “come play in our exotic paradise” image created by the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee over a century ago, is hurting, not helping.

On the windward side of Oʻahu, a group of twelve volunteers gathers at 8:00 a.m. in board shorts and wide brimmed hats, ready to get in the mud. They are at Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to restore ravaged land into the productive ahupuaʻa, or sustainable land division, it once was by rebuilding life-giving taro fields. The volunteers dip their toes into the loʻi kalo, or taro wetlands, and begin pulling weeds. Waist deep in the nutrient-rich mud, they practice the responsibility of mālama ʻāina, or caring for the land – one of the most important values of the Native Hawaiian culture.

The group is mostly locals, but there are a couple travelers too. They say that the afternoon of hard labor in the hot sun has been one of the most fulfilling experiences they have had while on vacation.

Over the past year, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority has begun shifting their focus to attract more mindful visitors by educating travelers on the islands’ fragile ecosystems and how they can help preserve them while enjoying their stay. One of the ways visitors can contribute is by volunteering.

15 Volunteer opportunities on Oʻahu:

1. Paepae o He’eia

Spanning 88 acres, the 800-year-old Heʻeia fish pond once produced up to 40,000 pounds of food a year. Over the past 20 years, with the help of volunteers, this nonprofit has been steadily restoring it by clearing invasive mangrove and rebuilding rock walls.

Volunteers may be asked to help with clearing mangrove, moving rocks, weeding and planting native plants. Water shoes are required.

2. Hawaiʻi Land Trust (HILT)

On a 9-acre historic site in Hauʻula stands one of the last Native Hawaiian heiau, or place of worship, on Oʻahu. HILT manages the property with the goal of preserving a place for cultural and environmental education for residents and visitors.

Volunteer tasks may include helping with restoration and conservation projects, events and office work.

3. Kahumana Organic Farms

In addition to growing vegetables for local restaurants and farmers markets, this organization provides housing, childcare, job coaching, jobs and learning centers for individuals and families who are either developmentally disabled or houseless. It also prepares daily school lunches for low-income children on the leeward coast.

Join them on the farm for Weeding Wednesdays.

4. Hawaii Food Bank

The Hawaii Food Bank is part of a network of 200 food banks across the country. It collects food and support from local communities to distribute to charitable organizations in need.

Daily volunteer opportunities include inspecting and sorting food donations and/or packing and loading food for drive through distributions.

5. Keiki & Plow

A family friendly organic farm offering a hands-on experience to connect with the land. Guests can harvest their own vegetables while the kids play on the farm.

Volunteer work may include planting, weeding, mulching and harvesting.

6. Mālama Loko ea

This organization aims to perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture and restore natural resources. It focuses on education, land stewardship and community building.

Help with fish pond restoration on ʻOhana Days.

7. Kāko’o ’Ōiwi

Saved from development by a grassroots resistance group in the 1980s, this 405-acre parcel of land now produces taro, breadfruit, bananas and a variety of other vegetables for the windward community.

Workdays may include weeding, planting and harvesting. Prepare to get muddy from head to toe.

8. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)

The Hawaiʻi state government organization that manages all public land, water resources, streams, coastal areas and other natural resources in Hawaiʻi. Volunteer opportunities include:

First Saturdays Volunteer Days: Participate in estuary restoration. Tasks include removing invasive pickleweed and mangrove.

Diamond Head State Monument Workdays: Help maintain one of Oʻahu’s most famous hikes. Tasks include weeding, pruning and removing invasive species.

9. Kualoa Ranch

Book the Mālama Experience to learn about sustainable food systems and the importance of taro in Native Hawaiian culture.

Activities may include thatching grass huts, caring for medicinal plants or cleaning, planting and/or harvesting taro.

10. Hui o Ko`olaupoko (HOK)

This nonprofit group works with communities to manage the local watershed and improve water quality through ecosystem restoration. There are three ways to volunteer:

He’eia Estuary Restoration: Remove invasive mangrove and plant native plants.

Kawainui wetland restoration: Remove non-native species and weeds and replant native plants.

Kaha Garden: Help maintain native plants and learn how to identify and propagate them.

11. Surfrider Foundation

This national organization focuses on protecting beaches and coastal ecosystems, so we can enjoy the sun, sand and surf in a sustainable way.

Volunteer activities may include water quality testing, beach cleanups and helping out with events.

12. Kuleana Coral Restoration

Strap on your scuba gear to assist this group with deep-water ocean conservation, while learning about Native Hawaiian cultural practices.

Volunteer to help with coral restoration.

13. Sustainable Coastlines

Enjoy a day at the beach while learning how to be a good steward of it. This group focuses on reducing plastics, keeping beaches clean and marine life preservation,

Volunteer for a beach cleanup today.

14. The Kūkulu Switchboard

This is an online platform that matches community news with resources, where philanthropic donors can find charitable mission-driven organizations and vice versa. It is also a place to find out what kinds of community projects are happening, so you can decide where you would like to volunteer.

Volunteer opportunities vary.

15. Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation

Founded by Jack and Kim Johnson, this nonprofit focuses on environmental education, by providing kids with hands-on experiences that will teach them how to be lifelong land stewards.

Volunteer opportunities may be available on the Kōkua Learning Farm weeding and planting or assisting with educational events.

There are over 900,000 people living on Oʻahu with millions of travelers visiting every year. The concept of mālama ʻāina has to be a way of life for residents and visitors in order to preserve its natural beauty and sustainability.

You can still have fun on vacation, while practicing good land stewardship. Show your aloha for Hawai’i during your next trip by taking time to volunteer.

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