PHOTO COURTESY OF BROWN AND CALDWELL
Hawaii Nature Center's Service Trip Program allows travelers to make their trips meaningful by helping to landscape and weed.
Nature trip mixes fun with service
'Voluntourism' trend emphasizes learning and community service
BROWN AND CALDWELL, a civil/environmental engineering firm with 45 offices throughout the United States, is known for designing and building water, waste-water, storm-water and solid-waste infrastructure for private and government clients in the Pacific region. This past Labor Day weekend, however, its Honolulu and Wailuku employees and their families banded together to build good will on Maui.
"Each year, Brown and Caldwell hosts a fun summer event for their employees, in appreciation for their hard work during the year," explained Sally Soliven, administrative coordinator of the company's Hawaii offices. "It's a chance for us to get to know each other and our families in an informal atmosphere."
IF YOU GO ...
What: Hawaii Nature Center Service Trip Program
Place: Hawaii Nature Center, 875 Iao Valley Road, Wailuku, Maui
Dates: Year-round, determined by the group (six-54 people). Two weeks' advance notice requested.
Cost: Starts at $40 per person per night. Add $30 per person per day for food.
Call: 244-6500 on Maui, 888-244-6503 from the other islands
E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.hawaiinaturecenter.org
Notes: Pack sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat or visor, comfortable walking/hiking shoes and clothes you won't mind getting dirty. The lodge has nine guest rooms, each with six bunk beds and a private bathroom. This is a customized program, so any number of days can be reserved (three to seven days is typical). Prices are based on the length of stay, program content, meals and outside activities the group would like to book. HNC completed a $650,000 renovation on its lodge this summer, and is trying to raise funds to make additional improvements, including expanding the kitchen facilities and purchasing microwaves and coffee makers for every room. Tax-deductible donations are welcome. Make your check out to the Hawaii Nature Center and mail it to the address above.
In the past the group has gathered for camps and beach picnics on Oahu, Maui and Lanai. This year, Soliven came up with the idea of a getaway that mixed fun with community service. Her husband, John, is the maintenance manager for the Hawaii Nature Center, Iao Valley, on Maui, so that was the natural choice.
Thirty-four participants checked in to HNC's recently renovated lodge for a two-day, two-night service trip that included several hours of weeding, pruning, raking and removing invasive plants on site. In addition, they cleared dried leaves, broken branches and fallen fruit from a nearby stream to allow the flow of water to a parched taro loi (patch).
There also was plenty of time for recreation: golfing, hiking, visiting Alii Kula Lavender Farm and Iao Valley State Park, seeing the acclaimed "'Ulalena" show in Lahaina, and barbecuing and playing games at HNC.
"It was a good balance," Soliven said, "being able to enjoy each other's company and help the center, which is a nonprofit organization and relies on volunteers. It brought us together to work and play in a beautiful, quiet environment."
Richard Sellona, the lead drafter for Brown and Caldwell's Hawaii offices, agrees. "The high point was getting reacquainted with our colleagues in a social setting and getting to know their families, too. It was a terrific experience for all of us. We learned about the history of Iao Valley, did some community work and enjoyed the camaraderie. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!"
THAT'S BEEN the reaction of all the groups who've participated in the service trip program, which was launched in June to expand HNC's efforts to educate the public about Iao Valley.
It's a great example of a growing trend in travel called "voluntourism," essentially a vacation that combines fun and philanthropy. Participants stay at HNC's clean but modest lodge and work with staffers as they learn about the valley and HNC's efforts to preserve it.
They also may assist other nonprofit organizations that share HNC's vision of protecting natural resources, providing environmental education and encouraging wise stewardship of fragile island ecosystems.
"Families, friends, middle and high school classes, church members, Boy and Girl Scouts, small businesses, hula halau, Sierra Club and other nonprofit organizations -- any kind of group -- can participate," says Wade Holmes, HNC's Maui program manager. "There are no strict requirements as far as number of hours groups have to work."
To date, their efforts have focused on eradicating invasive species such as coffee, strawberry guava and basket grass in Iao Valley. Eventually Holmes hopes service trip volunteers will reintroduce koa, ohia, mamaki, palapalai and other native plants; construct a Kamehameha butterfly sanctuary; and rebuild and maintain ancient taro patches that have been hidden for decades by dense growth.
"As we cut down the invasive plants, it becomes more and more clear that the whole valley is full of loi," says Holmes. "It's really neat to see the ancient landscape come to life again."
He notes the service trip program is mutually beneficial. HNC receives the help it needs, and visitors, in turn, feel good by doing good.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BROWN AND CALDWELL
An interactive museum at Hawaii Nature Center is open to those participating in its Service Trip Program.
"A lot of people realize they can leave a big ecological footprint when they travel," Holmes says. "This is an opportunity for them to make a positive impact on the environment and experience things that are not part of the regular tourist circuit."
The cost of the program includes a guided Rainforest Walk and unlimited admission to HNC's Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Interactive Nature Museum, which features more than 30 hands-on exhibits revolving around Hawaii's cultural and natural history.
Holmes also can arrange off-site activities that enrich the cultural experience, such as visits to the Old Lahaina Luau, Bailey House Museum or a Molokini snorkel cruise.
"We set up a basic itinerary and fill in the blanks after discussing options with the group," he explains. "We ask what they would like to do during their recreational time, and work with organizations that we think are complementing our efforts to educate guests and share a true Hawaiian experience."
Lori Tamai, office manager/support services for Brown and Caldwell, recognizes the impact HNC's service trip program had on her family, particularly cleaning the stream and seeing water flow again.
"It gave us such a feeling of accomplishment," she says. "John Soliven was an exceptional guide for that activity; his knowledge of the plants and native lore made the experience extra-special.
"On Monday when we left HNC to cruise around Maui, my 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter keep saying, 'I want to go back to the valley!' What more can I say? We loved it!"
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.