Kupu, a nonprofit focused on empowering youth to pursue work in sustainable sectors throughout the islands, transformed the typical work setting from concrete jungles to lush forests during the height of coronavirus-related unemployment.

The organization received about $3 million in funding secured by state lawmakers through the CARES Act, creating its first Aina Corps program last year. That opened the door to residents seeking education and training opportunities in conservation, agriculture, technology and green energy.

In October 2020, Kupu used those funds to hire 350 people for less than three months. Despite the narrow timeframe, members of the Kupu Aina Corps managed over 21,000 acres of land across the islands, generating about $6.5 million for Hawaii’s economy, according to Kupu spokesman Kawika Riley.

“You don’t have to choose between caring for the environment or contributing to a strong economy,” Riley said. “We actually have to do both.”

Kupu Aina Corps member removes invasive plants in Waimea Canyon State Park on Kauai.
A Kupu Aina Corps member removes invasive plants in Waimea Canyon State Park on Kauai. Kupu/2021

This year, the nonprofit secured an additional $5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was approved by the governor and the Hawaii Legislature in House Bill 1176 to support a new yearlong Green Job Youth Corps.

Organizers say their new focus is on finding funds to make the program sustainable long term instead of relying only on temporary federal Covid-19 relief funds.

Chair of the state House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection Nicole Lowen, who co-sponsored the bill, is optimistic.

“We’re hoping that more funds will come down if Congress passes the second part of the Build Back Better Act, so there’ll be more federal funding for this kind of effort to continue,” she said.

Laura Kaakua, CEO and president of Hawaii Land Trust, said the program’s financial stability is essential to allow younger generations to reimagine their occupational aspirations.

“We need to have clean drinking water, we need people restoring our forests, we need to have food, we need to figure out how we can make farming pay a living wage in Hawaii, or else it’s never going to be an attractive industry for young people to get involved in,” she said.

The Land Trust works with Kupu to secure host sites on all the islands. Last year, 50% of all host sites were on Oahu, while the remaining 50% were on neighbor islands.

Half of all the participants from the first program went on to pursue higher education or found permanent employment with Kupu, their host workplace or different organizations, a Kupu Aina Corps survey found.

Keala Fung, Kupu Aina Corps. alumni, presses down on the drill to turn former buckets into plant pots.
Keala Fung, a Kupu Aina Corps alumni, presses down on a drill to turn former buckets into plant pots. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

This was the case for Kupu Aina Corps alumni Keala Fung, who turned her short-term work into a permanent workplace.

After joining protests over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in 2019, Fung was looking forward to moving to Molokai to work for the National Park Service in Kalaupapa. But the pandemic interrupted her dreams and she was left searching for a new job.

Fung ended up matching with Reuse Hawaii, a waste reduction nonprofit that recycles affordable building materials.

After a few weeks of work removing nails from wood, Fung moved to the workshop and found her real passion: creating.

“Here in the workshop, I call us the ‘no kill shelter’ for lumber,” Fung said.

Public Parklet located on Waialae Avenue before Kokohead Avenue.
A Public Parklet on Waialae Avenue was made out of recycled wood by Keala Fung and her team at Reuse Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Using recycled wood, Fung and her team worked with the city and Better Blocks Hawaii to create parklets, small seating areas in former parking stalls, to provide more public space in Kaimuki and Kalihi. The team is currently finishing a table and benches for a Kalihi church to provide seating during meal distributions.

Founder of Reuse Hawaii, Quinn Vittum, stands in front of their warehouse filled with appliances, furniture, Christmas decoration and more.
Founder of Reuse Hawaii, Quinn Vittum, stands in front of their warehouse filled with appliances, furniture, Christmas decorations and more. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

Founder of Reuse Hawaii, Quinn Vittum, hired five of the 10 Aina Corps members assigned to his organization last year.

He’s now looking forward to taking in as many corps members as he can get for the next round, especially since they’ll be working for at least a year this time.

“Oahu is really coming to a head with the landfills closing and the scale of the development that’s generating a ton of waste,” Vittum said. “So, we feel like this work with Kupu can help prepare a workforce to be able to address the needs moving forward.”

Vittum imagines a demolition-free future for Hawaii, so working with Kupu to train more workers in deconstruction are the steps he’s taking to get closer to that dream.

And he’s not the only employer excited for the new round of corps members. There was a 100% retention rate for all participating host sites in varied fields such as ornithology, botany, natural and aquatic resource management, marine biology, Hawaiian cultural studies and agricultural science.

Kaakua said the Hawaii Land Trust is also working to secure more outer island host sites than last time.

Applications close Jan. 7 for 130 positions for the yearlong program, which is set to start in January. Similar to a fellowship, Kupu covers roughly 75% of the total cost while host sites pay roughly $12,000 per participant to provide wages starting at $14 an hour, including health care and other benefits.

While the program focuses on jobs for people between the ages of 20 and 40, Riley said every applicant will be considered.

The Green Job Youth Corps is reminiscent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established by Congress in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, providing jobs for young, unemployed men during the Great Depression, Riley said.

But unlike the past, he doesn’t see this as temporary.

Riley is beginning to notice former high school volunteers who have graduated from college and are working for the nonprofit or have obtained different jobs within the environmental sector.

“We’re starting to see the benefit of what this can do for creating and fostering the next generation of conservation leaders,” Riley said.

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