Star-Bulletin Features

Pull weeds


After three years of
teaching isle teens to care for the Earth,
Youth for Environmental Service extends
its reach to California and Seattle

By Greg Ambrose

IF you've noticed that your favorite beach, stream or hiking trail is suddenly cleaner, you can probably thank a special group of youngsters.

Youth for Environmental Service has enlisted an army of young volunteers to swoop down and make Hawaii a much nicer place to live.

And their spirit of community involvement has been exported to the mainland, where it is working similar magic.

Photos By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin

The YES program sent a crew of teens from Hale Kipa to
Waianae's Kaala Learning Center to pull weeds, top, and
prepare a taro patch for planting, above. Though timid at
first, the teens eagerly plunged hands and feet into the
dirt and mud. Below, Kimberly Lai, a recreation counselor
with Hale Kipa, got her hands dirty as well.

YES got started in 1994 when Brian Schatz convinced the Sea Grant program at the University of Hawaii that it could create healthier communities by involving young people in service to their environment.

Since then it has gotten 10,000 students from 120 schools to clean miles of beaches and streams, maintain hiking trails and taro patches, and rid forests of strangling invaders such as miconia and maile pilau.

The youngsters have helped such diverse groups as the Surfrider Foundation, Volcanoes National Park, the Outdoor Circle and the Kaala Learning Center, among many others.

"Without YES, the Manoa Falls Trail would be so damaged that we might have to close it," said state trails and access specialist Aaron Lowe. "Because of their help, we've been able to restore the ecosystem and reduce erosion. This trail is a shining example of what volunteers can do."

The statistics are pretty impressive when you consider that YES is basically two guys in Hawaii working their okoles off. With the help of thousands of volunteers, of course.

But what do the kids get out of their hours of labor?

"It felt good to be out there giving back to the community," said Maukalani Elementary School student Latanya Sellers. "I would love to do more things like this in the future. I learned that you don't have to be 25 to stop things that are hurting our environment. People need to realize that Earth is our home and we need to take care of it."

Hawaii Baptist Academy student Brandi Yasuoka thought YES sounded vastly more interesting than the usual clerical summer jobs. She found out she was right when she coordinated a cleanup at Ala Moana Beach Park for the National Junior Honor Society.

"It was surprising because I didn't think there was that much rubbish on the beach," Yasuoka said.

"I think that there is a lot of opportunity to help when you are involved with YES. You get to see what's really out there and see how to solve the problems."

Those words are sweet music to Bruce Miller, director of the federal Sea Grant Extension Service. "The main reason I am excited about YES is we have been looking for a long time for a way to get young people involved in volunteering," Miller said.

"YES projects have helped the ocean quality in the short term, but in the long term, as they mature, the kids get more strongly involved in volunteering. We have found a vehicle to get young people into the process."

Nurturing this spirit of volunteerism is the beauty of the program, and allows YES to operate on a shoestring budget. "The thing that is exciting about our program is it depends on community interest," said Schatz.

"We really don't need much in the way of cash resources. We get a lot of bang for our bucks." Schatz and fellow coordinator Sean Casey are able to run offices in Hawaii, San Francisco and Los Angeles on a total of $150,000 in grant money, contracts from government agencies and individual and business donations.

But they can always use more money, and more help. "This summer we have been booking so many presentations and projects, it's hard to keep track," said Yasuoka. "We just don't have enough money to hire staff to do all the events we would like."

YES reaches its young volunteers with slides, videos and discussions of how fragile and important the environment is, and problems that young people can solve, such as erosion, urban runoff, marine debris, deforestation and noxious species invasion.

YES works with various local agencies and environmental groups to find projects that match the interests of student volunteers, and also coordinates long-term internships and projects that dovetail with individual students' goals.

The response has been overwhelming, and not just in Hawaii. Miller was inspired when he went on a cleanup at Ocean Beach while visiting the San Francisco office. "The kids were so excited, there was so much energy, and it's not just talk."

Yasuoka wants kids to make a difference more often. "I hope this program goes nationwide. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but I know we can do it." She is slowly getting her wish, as Schatz is in Seattle setting up the third YES office on the West Coast, with more planned.

YES has even spread to cyberspace. Its Internet web site,, is filled with information on how to get involved, and a bulletin board loaded with laudatory messages from grateful students, teachers and groups.

It's all delicious payback for founder Schatz. "I couldn't have a better job in the whole world, because I got to design it myself. . . . Working with students, and the amount of work we accomplish and the lives we touch make it truly rewarding."

Environmental events

A pair of YES-sponsored events this fall are attracting participants from around the world:
International Workcamp: Trail work and a Hawaiian historical cultural festival at Kalalau Valley and Kokee on Kauai, Sept. 29-Oct 12.
Youth Environment Conference: For high school juniors and seniors, Camp Erdman, North Shore, Nov. 21-23.
Call: 957-0423 or 227-6041.

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