The sweat was rolling down my face as I stared intently at the green leaf. Did it meet the criteria? I picked up my example leaf and placed it next to the one that held my gaze. I compared it – were the points of the leaves the same? Was the stem the same? The color? Yes. I grabbed at the base of the stem where it grew out of the red soil and pulled. One more invasive plant was gone!
It might seem counter-intuitive for me to spend my holiday time in Maui pulling invasive plants from protected lands – but I LOVE these islands. They are a unique little world that feels nothing like the US and provides us with such beauty in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Mere dots engulfed by the ocean. This is why I wanted to add ‘volunteer in Hawaii’ to my itinerary.
Why You Should Consider Volunteering On Your Hawaii Vacation
An important part of enjoying Maui – even as a visitor – is taking the time to also care for Maui. This idea is embodied in the Hawaiian concept of kuleana (responsibility).
Some of my best travel experiences have been when I volunteer during my travels. Not only does it help the local community you are visiting, but it’s also an incredible way to meet locals, get really immersed in the culture, and have a unique story to tell about your vacation.
Here are three of the past volunteer activities I did as part of my Hawaii Islands vacation.
1. Make Poi with Locals on Kauai
One of my favorite things I’ve ever done on any Hawaiian Island is volunteering with locals on Kauai to make poi to give to the seniors around the island.
I volunteered with a mix of Hawaiian old-timers, young men, middle-age women, and a smattering of twenty-something students. The crowd of poi makers was made up of local people from Kauai and a few mainland part-time residents.
This volunteering in Kauai was put on by Waipa Foundation whose goal is cultural preservation. It’s been around since 1982 and has nonprofit status. It exists to sustain cultural food and farming heritage in the area. Poi making is just one of their programs.
I walked away from that experience having made some new local friends, a better understanding of the farming practices on the island, a totally unique travel experience to share, a full stomach, wrinkled water-logged fingers, and a big bag of freshly made poi. It was the way I like to travel – it was immersive and memorable.
Want to join the weekly poi day or monthly community workday? Call Waipa Foundation at 826-9969 or email them at [email protected].
2. Protect Maui from ‘Invasive Tourism’ with HILT
Instead of spending another day as the typical tourist surfing, sunbathing, rowing, or sightseeing on Haleakala – I took a big turn off the tourist trail and decided to spend my morning volunteering in Maui. That turn took me to the office of Hawaiian Island Land and Trust (HILT), where protecting the Hawaiian land and cultures of the land are their number one goal. Their mission:
I met Scott at the office and he provided me with an overview of HILT’s mission, vision, programs, and a view of the HILT lands on Maui. I was there to learn more about HILT, and also to volunteer in Hawaii and do something to give back.
HILT has a team of local volunteers who come out and work on the various areas clearing invasive plants every week and this week I was going to join them. I took Scott’s advice and wore long pants, sturdy shoes, a hat, and brought sunscreen – I was ready to get dirty! And I was really excited about this change of pace to my normal Maui itinerary.
HILT Protects the Land in Maui
Today’s volunteering spot was Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge. The refuge is one of the most significant cultural sites in the state. Like most land in Hawaii, it was once slated for development (as a destination golf resort), but now will be forever protected thanks to HILT.
Granted – I love tourism, if it weren’t for tourism I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. However, I also worry about what tourism does to us. Capitalism can be a beautiful and ugly thing in tourism. The ugly side brings with it overdevelopment, it drives out the real culture and people and oftentimes replaces the real people and culture with manufactured culture…ahem…Luau. (see what a real local luau is about).
Does Hawaii really need another golf course? Probably not. But preserving the Heiau’s, old taro fields, and ways of Hawaiian farming is important. That’s why I loved what HILT stands for.
My Experience Volunteering with HILT
As Scott drove me out to Waihee Wetland Refuge he shared a wealth of information about the history, culture, plants, and the land. In fact, I felt as if I were back in school as he often used the formal names for all of the plant species that left me trying to reach far, far back in my memory bank of some classes I took in grade school. Even if I couldn’t remember all of the scientific names of the plants, it was important to know the difference between indigenous ( it occurs there naturally. It is a native but can be found elsewhere), endemic (only found in Hawaii), and non-native (does not naturally occur there – brought in by others).
Scott pointed out various non-native/invasive plants as we drove through the refuge. He also pointed out the areas where they had already cleared the non-native plants – they looked completely different to me. In this environment, clearing invasive plants is a never-ending process – which is why a team of dedicated volunteers is necessary.
It was time to begin my hands-on work. Scott pulled up an invasive plant that sort of looked like a carrot top. He handed it to me and said, “We normally find it easiest for people to look for one type of plant and pull it – this is what you are looking for today.” I had my mission and quickly got to work!
A positive outcome of volunteering was it was a great way to meet locals as many of the volunteers were locals who come out weekly. As you pull invasive weeds you can chat with locals and learn more about history as well as get tips on where to eat and what to do on the island.
As we worked, Scott pointed out where the fish ponds used to be and the old village/settlements, and explained the ancient farming and land division practices. It is believed that this part of Maui was home to one of the oldest settlements on the island. He said that they regularly dig up fish hooks and other artifacts as they work on the land. As I worked and listened, I definitely felt more connected to the land.
Volunteer with the Cat Sanctuary on Lanai
On the island of Lanai, passionate volunteers were able to start an incredible cat sanctuary. The Lanai Cat Sanctuary rescues cats from protected areas where native and endangered ground-nesting birds such as the ‘Ua’u, the Hawaiian Petrel. The Sanctuary has brought in more than 600 cats since 2015. In 2018, 200 cats were rescued.
Believe it or not, the Cat Sanctuary is an attraction on the island of Lanai that shouldn’t be missed! As a tourist or visitor on Lana’i, you can visit the sanctuary and play with the cats, as well as volunteer and help out at the sanctuary. I visited the sanctuary on my visit to the island and had an incredible time playing with the cats and learning more about the organization.
And if you fall in love with one, you can even adopt! For locals, there is a strong group of cat lovers who volunteer and keep the sanctuary going day to day and manage donations and improvements to the sanctuary.
More Opportunities to Volunteer in Hawaii for Tourists and Locals Alike
No effort is too small and you can get involved and volunteer in Hawaii on ANY of the islands.
All of the Hawaiian Islands
Hawaiian Paddle Sports on Maui keeps an updated list of volunteer opportunities for tourists on Maui. It has some really cool opportunities like restoring dunes, taking Human Society animals for a ‘day out’ (I LOVE this idea!), doing some organic farming, and doing coral reef surveys.
Oahu – Big Island Voluntourism
Go whale watching AND help with citizen science at the same time! Sail Hawaii on the Big Island offers a unique sea tour that includes whale, dolphin, and turtle encounters with snorkeling opportunities, plus documenting wildlife. With your help, encountered wildlife is documented by your marine biologist crew and cataloged through Cascadia Research Collective for conservation purposes. Their mission is “conservation through experience” – Become a biologist for a day, a wildlife steward forever
Kalaupapa is an incredible place to visit on the island of Molokai. However, you can do more than simply take a tour of the historic and tragic leper colony. Why not join the Volunteer-In-Parks Program at Kalaupapa National Historical Park to protect natural and cultural resources. This opportunity is only available to groups, but it’s worth checking into. Volunteer activities include:
- Removal of invasive plants from cemeteries and cultural sites
- Assisting with native plant propagation and replanting efforts
- Working in native plant nurseries
- Cleaning historic buildings
Maui Humane Society Voluntourism
This could be the coolest way to volunteer in Hawaii I’ve heard of! The Maui Humane Society Beach Buddies program allows visitors to take a shelter dog out for a day of fun every Wednesday & Friday from 11 am – 4 pm. Adventure to the cooler temperatures of Upcountry and explore forested hikes, splash around on the beach or grab lunch at a dog-friendly restaurant.
They will give you a backpack full of supplies to along with your pup; including a water bottle, bowl, towel, treats, poop bags, and a seatbelt. There is no charge to participate in Beach Buddies, however, a suggested minimum donation of $20 is greatly appreciated and helps to offset the costs associated with operating this program.
I was a guest of Maui Visitor Bureau for this trip. However all of the opinions expressed here are my own. I was able to choose my own activities that were of interest to me and my style of travel.