Saving Hawaii from ‘invaders’ while rescuing young lives

Well out of view of most Hawaii residents, an Oahu-based nonprofit is rescuing troubled lives as it fights to protect the Islands’ fragile ecosystem from invasive species.

Now in its 11th year, Kupu Hawaii has cleared more than 100,000 acres of invasive species and planted more than a million trees and plants on all the major islands and as far away as Midway. Its economic impact to Hawaii since its founding in 2007 exceeds $100 million, based on a Columbia University model that measures the cost value of its work.

Much of that work has been accomplished by more than 3,600 young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24. Some are college graduates, but most of them come from low-income households and are considered at-risk. They are paid for their work in the mountains and valleys where invasive species thrive, and they receive training in how to pursue productive lives.

“We engage them in service as individuals and in teams,” Kupu Hawaii CEO John Leong told me. “They’re discovering their passion. We’re helping them to unlock their potential, to be successful in life.”

Born and raised in Honolulu, Leong began to envision a nonprofit such as Kupu Hawaii as a student at Punahou School. He had spent a summer doing environmental work and saw the possible connection with helping at-risk youth.

Leong went on to study at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, a path that often leads to lucrative careers with Mainland financial institutions. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, he considered offers from both the east and west coasts but decided to return home to pursue his vision of creating a nonprofit that addressed both environmental and social issues.

His first venture was the creation of the environmental firm Pono Pacific Land Management in 2000. Seven years later, he, his wife Julianna, and their friend Matthew Bauer founded Kupu Hawaii – kupu means “to sprout, grow” in the Hawaiian language. They began attracting business partners from both the private and public sectors and recruited their first class of members.

Leong recalls spending much of the early years out in the field, tearing out invasive species and planting native flora alongside Kupu members and volunteers. Today, he manages approximately 40 employees in Kupu’s Kakaako offices and focuses on building more relationships with hundreds of business partners.

Kupu Hawaii operates on a $12 million annual budget, with $8 million going into programs and $4 million for capital improvements. Approximately half of its income comes from government grants and contracts and a third comes from private grants. Service fees, donations and contributions make up the rest.

The next big capital project will focus on Kupu Hawaii’s headquarters on land it leases from the state near Kewalo Basin. Plans are to add classrooms and training and meeting facilities and launch a farm-to-table culinary program as a revenue-generating social enterprise. Expect to see a food truck down the road.

Leong reports a high success rate among those who have completed the program. More than 90 percent of them have found jobs or pursued higher education upon finishing the program, and most have remained in conservation and environmental fields. Approximately 75 percent of them have added community service to their resumes.

The program includes training in the classroom and in the field in issues such as consumer economics, health, community resources, government and law, and occupational knowledge.

Completing the program is not always easy. Leong recalls a young high school dropout who entered and left the Kupu program twice before coming back a third time to finish. With help from counselors, she scored 98 percent on her competency-based (C-Base) test that led to her high school diploma and went on to become a productive member of society.

“The door is always open,” Leong says.

Then there was the young man who was battling many of the demons that come with being homeless when he entered the program. He went on to complete his education, get married, move to the Mainland, buy a house and get a job working with computer software. Before he left, he brought his wife into the Kupu Hawaii offices, not far from where he once pitched his tent.

“I wanted to show her the place that saved my life,” he told the staff.

I asked Leong to describe how Hawaii is a different place because of Kupu Hawaii. He acknowledges that the environmental work that most of us never see is critical to the survival of the Islands’ ecosystem. Equally important, he says, is the potential impact that more than 3,600 newly empowered youth will have on those around them.

“If we do that well, getting them to the next part in their lives, they will affect others, and the impact will be in the tens of thousands,” he says.

To learn more about Kupu Hawaii, contact CEO John Leong at john.leong@kupuhawaii.org.


In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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