Collaboration in Community: Introducing Kupu

Alicia Rodriguez
May 9, 2024
Discover how Kupu is helping pave the way for Hawaiʻi’s youth through environmental and community-centric programs. Learn about their impactful work in Lahaina’s restoration and their dedication to fostering a sustainable future.

We are constantly inspired by how our brands use their platforms to help drive meaningful change. Today, we’re delighted to highlight Kupu, a nonprofit organization working to build a better future for Hawaiʻi’s youth. Our certified brand, ALOHA, supports Kupu by donating 10% of the proceeds of their best selling protein bar—the Kona Bar—towards their work. 

We recently caught up with Kawika Riley, Kupu’s Vice President of External Affairs, about Kupu’s programs across Hawaiʻi, its contributions to restoration efforts in Lahaina, and its overall mission and vision. 

Tell us a bit about Kupu. 

Kupu was established in 2007 by three young college grads who returned to Hawaiʻi and decided to start a nonprofit organization to help care for our precious natural and cultural resources. 

Since then, we've been doing our work throughout the pae ʻāina, or archipelago of Hawaiʻi, and recently expanded into the U.S. affiliated Pacific. We run about a dozen programs, all focused on unlocking the potential of local youth and young adults, while caring for the environment. 

Our programs give folks the knowledge and skills they need to make a tangible impact on the environment and their local communities. Since our incorporation, over 6,000 youth and young adults have gone through our program and come out with a diploma, a paid professional experience, an internship, or a job in a sustainability field. 

Does the team at Kupu think climate change played a role in last year’s devastating Lahaina fire? And is Kupu involved in providing just and equitable restoration and rebuilding efforts?

While in-depth investigations on the link between climate change and the Lahaina wildfires are still underway, we do think it's very clear that climate change and the biodiversity crisis both played a part. 

Kupu has worked in Maui for well over a decade, operating a number of different sustainability-focused programs. Some of the young adults in our program were just finishing up their term when the tragedy struck. Our first priority was to make sure they were safe. Then we shifted our focus to ensuring we could continue to operate our programs in Maui while also establishing some new disaster relief projects to help support the local community. All of these efforts are partnership based, so it’s not us coming in and taking over but rather listening to the needs of our Maui partners and giving them a hand when and where we can. 

Currently, we’re working with Maui-based disaster response leaders to provide at least 100 paid positions in disaster or emergency response and outreach. So far, we have deployed over 60 individuals into paid positions, working with seven different Maui-based partners. 

For example, we partnered with Maui College to provide food security for displaced residents via a student-run food hub based out of the college’s culinary program. Each student in the program receives pay with benefits for their contribution, allowing them to continue their education and protect their livelihood while making an impact in the community. Our work and our partners will evolve as the recovery progresses.

Can you share more about the impact Kupu has as an organization and how it centers justice and equity in its work? 

We're focused on helping youth and young adults realize the importance of addressing climate change to protect our environment. The fact is, most young people understand this will be the fight of their generation. We encourage young people to get that first experience supporting the environment. And if that experience ignites a passion in them, we’re here to make sure they have the skills and tools necessary to turn that passion into a career.

Several hundred young adults go through our program each year, and most of them participate via a paid job experience that gets them started off in their careers. This is a big part of our impact model. With the exception of our education-focused programs—which are provided free of charge to participants—the vast majority of our youth and young adults receive paid, hands-on experience through our programs. This is important for a variety of reasons but particularly for justice and equity. 

Sometimes the most exciting and lucrative jobs are only accessible to those who have a leg up in life or are fortunate enough to begin their careers through unpaid internships. But not everyone can afford to do that. When our founders—John, Juliana, and Matt—launched Kupu, they wanted to create a paid entry point to rewarding stewardship-based careers so everyone has the chance to access these opportunities, regardless of their backgrounds or household income. 

How can people get involved and support your efforts? 

The best way is to show support by making a donation on our website. Everything we do is free to our participants and in most cases, donations go towards paying our young participants for the jobs they choose to try out. 

Also, if you know a young adult in Hawaiʻi or in the U.S. affiliated Pacific who could benefit from our programs, please send them our way! We’d love to help get them started. 

Lastly, our partner network is an essential aspect of our organization. Most of our programs are network-based models of impact where we directly prepare and orient the participants and then deploy them to our network of affiliated partners. These partners consist of conservation- and sustainability-focused employers including non-profits, for-profits, the public sector, etc. Without our partners, we wouldn't have the diversity of opportunities we currently have in our programs. So, we’re always looking for new partners who are willing to provide the next generation with invaluable experience in a sustainability profession.

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About the Author

Alicia Rodriguez
Certification Program Manager

Craft beer aficionado with a strong passion for her Puerto Rican culture, Alicia brings experience in project management and customer service and holds an MBA in Sustainable Innovation. She looks to create impact and apply intersectionality to everything she does, and believes that everyone can—and should—find a role in addressing the climate crisis.

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