Program trains youth to be isle caretakers


HILO — Like enormous lighthouses, Hawaii Island’s parks serve as beacons, calling out to vacationers and adventure seekers across the globe.

But just like lighthouses, the island’s natural resources require caretakers — people willing to educate and dedicate themselves to their protection and preservation.

Next month, about 50 Hawaii Island high school students will kick off summer internships at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as they continue their explorations into possible careers in conservation work.

“The Youth Ranger Internship Program is designed to empower local students to affect change in the world and to expose them to meaningful career options,” said Park Ranger Kupono McDaniel, who oversees the program. “The skills they learn will make them better candidates for any career they choose to pursue.”

Initially, the $10-an-hour paid internships were only available to students in Ka‘u. But last year, the four-year-old program expanded to include Puna high school students.

The interns have opportunities to serve as park rangers, cultural and natural resources staff, or protection team members at the park. Through their jobs, the have the chance to share their newly gained insights on Hawaii’s resources to hundreds of thousands of park visitors during the busy summer months.

They train alongside park Rangers in six different division within the park, including interpretation, natural resources, cultural resources, maintenance, protection and administration. After the training, as many as 33 successful candidates will be hired to those divisions.

This year, however, the program hit a few snags, with federal funding being cut by about $200,000, McDaniel said. Only through the support of community donors, businesses and organizations has the program managed to remain afloat.

“It’s been really amazing that the community came through for us when federal funding got tighter,” McDaniel said. “Every time we started to hit a roadblock, someone from the community steps up to help out.”

This year, the park’s nonprofit partner, Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was awarded grants from the Cooke Foundation Ltd., the Victoria S. and Bradley L. Geist Foundation, Kamehameha Schools’ Aima Education Program, and the Hawaii Pacific Park Association to continue the Youth Ranger Internship Program.

“We received over $90,000 in grants this year,” said Elizabeth Fien, education and outreach coordinator for the Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “The entire budget was $247,000. … Especially in this economy, that’s really big news. It’s been amazing.”

Last week, the students took part in graduation ceremonies at the Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani Campus following a six-week training period for the eight-week summer internships. They included students from Ka‘u, Pahoa, and Keaau high schools, as well as Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science. The ceremonies were funded through additional donations from Volcano Art Center, KTA Superstores, Target, Nui Pohaku and Safeway.

The graduation ceremonies provided a time to highlight the work already done by the students, but it was also a chance to wish them luck as they begin the next, exciting chapter in their experience with conservation, McDaniel said.

“With them beginning their eight weeks, this is their chance to shine,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of choices that they’ll be able to make, that could affect the course of their career. It’s exciting to see.”