Paying It Forward: Volunteer on Vacation

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By Sarah Ruppenthal

The Teil family volunteering on Maui
The Teil family volunteered to plant endangered ‘āhinahina (silverswords) while on vacation.

In preparation for their annual family trip to Maui in November, 2021, Chrisy and Arnaud Teil planned out their usual activities: snorkeling in Mākena, shopping in Pā‘ia Town and visiting their favorite Kula farm stand for a bouquet of fresh flowers. This year, however, they added a new excursion — a volunteer opportunity through the nonprofit organization Friends of Haleakalā National Park. Bright and early one morning, the Teils and their two children headed to the crater’s summit to help plant hundreds of silversword seedlings. For son Luc (11), a budding botanist, handling this rare and endangered plant was the highlight of his vacation.

The Teils are part of a growing trend called voluntourism, where mindful travelers make meaningful and lasting contributions to a host community, doing their part to leave it better than when they arrived. This movement came to the forefront in 2020 with Mālama Hawai‘i, an initiative launched by the Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau in partnership with the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, that encourages visitors to mālama (care for) the islands.

The Fairmont Kea Lani provides cleanup kits as part of its Mālama Hawai‘i program.

Hotels and resorts responded quickly, offering Mālama Hawai‘i packages and special discounts to visitors who give back. One of these resorts was the Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui, which offers a fifth night free to guests who take part in a self-guided beach cleanup: you choose the day, time and location of your cleanup and the resort provides a kit filled with trash bags, gloves and a datasheet to record what you find for a marine-debris database.

Conservation and environmental groups also stepped up, offering more volunteer-on-vacation programs to help tourists mālama Maui, such as beach cleanups, land restoration, community outreach and the like. For example, regular Maui visitor Denisse Allaire monitors sea-turtle nests for the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, camping on the beach near the nesting sites and watching over the hatchlings to ensure they reach the ocean safely.

“It’s a spectacular experience,” says Allaire. “I do it as often as I can. You get more out of volunteering than you could ever imagine.”

Sarah Witas and Adam Bourette with their adopted dog DJ.

Illinois residents Sarah Witas and Adam Bourette echo her sentiment. In 2021, the couple signed up for the Maui Humane Society’s Beach Buddies program, which allows visitors to take an adoptable dog out of the shelter for a day. Witas and Bourette were paired with DJ, a mixed-breed puppy, whom they took to the beach and the park before grabbing some ice cream (for the humans) and returning to the shelter.

“The program gives the dog an opportunity to show its true colors and potentially meet someone who can adopt them,” Witas explains. In DJ’s case, that “someone” was Witas and Bourette, who fell in love with the pup and brought him home to Illinois.

Setting aside valuable vacation time to volunteer is commendable, but don’t worry if you can’t make it happen each and every time you come to Maui. All visitors can do their part to make a difference on a daily basis: conserve water, recycle, stay away from sea turtles and monk seals, and wear reef-safe sunscreen.

“Any contribution, no matter how small, can make a big impact,” says Allaire.

“Beach Buddies was my all-time favorite ‘excursion’ on Maui,” says Witas. “But never in a million years would I have thought it would [give me] my best souvenir.”

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