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Volunteering: The Only Way To Experience The Real Hawaii

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

IVHQ volunteer Russell Livingston talks about his unique experience volunteering in Hawaii with International Volunteer HQ.

The Aloha Trip

The IVHQ Hawaii volunteer program in which my grandson (age 17) and I (age 71) participated on is truly a rare gem! I’ve volunteered on seven fabulous IVHQ programs, and I can say that IVHQ and Sustainable Coastlines do an outstanding job.

All IVHQ volunteer work across the world is meaningful and important, but on the Hawaii program you are immersed in Hawaiian history; you are helping re-create authentic ancient Hawaiian conditions, structures, and environments, and each day we were all amazed, and proud, at what we had accomplished! You work as the native people worked, do as they do and see what they saw. You learn so much about Hawaii and its history. It’s an incredible adventure.

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

The local program coordinator, Katie, picked us up at the airport in the van, making arrival easy and stress-free. The volunteer house is at the base of gorgeous steep tall mountains, which, after rain, run with waterfalls ready to explore. Your room is in a large modern house with all the conveniences you are used to and in a lovely safe neighborhood. Not to mention the rooms have real reds with comfortable mattresses and box springs! There are only 2 to 4 people in a room instead of the more common 8 to 10.

Waking in the morning to the sweet sound of cooing doves, we drag ourselves out to the great room/kitchen to the sound of happy contemporary island music and Katie’s cheerful greetings and help ourselves to breakfasts of all sorts of cereals, bread, eggs, fruits, tea, coffee, etc.

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

The first morning is orientation, by Katie, our leader, historian, driver, cheerleader, cook, guide, travel agent, a fellow laborer, and house mum. She is always available and is extraordinarily positive, hard-working, and helpful. We learned of the great Pacific gyre, a garbage swirl dumping millions of tons of plastic and trash on the beaches of the world and of the ghastly damage to fish, seabirds, turtles, and other sea life caused by plastic and trash.

We all piled into the van and drove to a perfect tropical beach—littered with trash. A few hours of sifting sand and cleaning the beach (with an hour’s break for body surfing and swimming) gave us hundreds of pounds of icky stuff, which we hauled back to the van. It’s great exercise, this program keeps you fit! Then off to a recycling station, the nearby supermarket to get food for dinner, and home to shower.

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

The indigenous people of Oahu lived in 28 separate areas called ahupua’a, each extending from the top of the highest mountains where the most rain fell, down through the tropical rainforest, then through broad green valleys watered by streams and springs, continuing to the flatter wetlands, and finally to the ancient rock-walled fish ponds and the sea.

You work in each of these sections of one of these ahupua’a, called He’eia Ahupua’a, in the long exhausting quest to restore it to its original condition. It is one of the only ahupua’a to have avoided urbanization and destruction, highlighting what a unique mission you are participating in.

At the highest elevation, up a steep and rugged path through the lush jungle at the headwaters, we worked building a trail to restore access to the various parts of the mountain - more great exercise! After climbing back down you can refresh yourself with a cold drink from a pure spring flowing from the rock. The mountain is Mauna O’loleka’a (Tumbling Rat Mountain), which I demonstrated to be aptly named by taking an accidental flying dive and skid—good sympathy points! The non-profit organization responsible, Papahana Kuaola, also operates an organic native plant nursery and seed bank.

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

Finishing the day’s work around 1:00 PM, as we did each day, we were presented, courtesy of Katie, with a luau of authentic Hawaiian foods—delicious! Great leftovers too! Lunch is provided daily and is really excellent. Katie may pick up and bring it to us, we might eat at a restaurant, and once we packed our own lunches of sandwiches, fruit, snacks, etc.

Each evening Katie lets you know where you will be and what you will do the next days on the project so you can make plans for the afternoon. You can go fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, surfing, bagging rays at the beach, sight-seeing, shopping all over the island, swimming and snorkeling with sharks, hiking trails, walking jungle streams, hitting Waikiki and Honolulu: anything you can think of. Katie helps you plan so she can take you where you want to go, or you can always catch a bus or call Uber or Lyft.

Volunteering: the only way to experience the real Hawaii

One day a week, work is at Kako’o Owii, an organic farm with stunning views of mountains and green valleys. The farm and the original wetlands of the area are part of the restoration project. Native crops are grown, and taro, or kalo, used in making poi, is primary. After an interesting educational lesson, you may spend a truly unique morning thigh-deep in a taro patch, cutting and pulling up the large plants by the root. You may then “stomp” a taro patch, your legs will be covered in marvelous muck as you use your feet (and hands) to submerge weeds. Don’t worry there are showers. It’s more great exercise!

At the huge Paepae O He’eia fishpond, learning the fascinating history and operation of the pond, you then help to recreate the original conditions: hauling and burning cut mangrove branches, working with school kids carrying rocks, building rock walls by hand—REALLY great exercise!

There is so much more I could say about this remarkable Hawaii program! It is perfect for one’s first trip (or last); during my trip there were 10 first timers aged 17 through 20, including my grandson, plus my ancient self on my 7th IVHQ volunteer trip, and we all had a truly wondrous adventure that none of us will ever forget.

After our return, my daughter said, of my grandson, “You went to Hawaii a boy, and you came back a man.”


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