Giving back. It’s a phrase you’ve heard a thousand times, but have you ever really considered what it means? The implication is that you took something—and you did. Even if you’ve gone green; even if you installed solar panels on your roof, drive a Prius and recycle voraciously; even if your carbon footprint is the size of a gecko’s and your love of the ‘aina is as big as the sky, you still take to survive. We all do—haole, Hawaiian, local, tourist. It’s inescapable.
This realization—that no matter who we are or what we do, we’re sucking up some of the island’s, and the planet’s, valuable, finite life force—can lead to guilt. And guilt can lead to apathy and inertia.
Fighting that inertia, and offering concrete ways to get proactive, is the goal of Preserving Paradise, a sort of eco-guidebook from Maui writer Kirsten Whatley. The book, available now at bookstores island-wide and set to hit the Mainland next month, is a how-to manual for those looking to get off their okole and pitch in to maintain the pristine natural splendor that surrounds us. Whatley has painstakingly gathered information on over 60 organizations throughout Hawaii—21 of them in Maui County—that offer volunteer opportunities. Though the book is pretty close to comprehensive, Whatley says subsequent editions will be updated with new groups or ones that may have slipped through the cracks. “It’s an evolving work in progress,” she says. “But I see it as a really good starting point.”
We chatted with Whatley about the genesis of the book, how to get past “volunteeritis” and the joys associated with doing good for goodness’s sake.
How did the idea for this book come about?
I was working on another project that seemed like a dream to me—it was about hikes and outdoor adventures on the island. But pretty quickly it became a moral dilemma because the most pristine spots I knew of were that way because no tour buses stopped there. And I wasn’t about to tell the world about them. So I started wondering, what would be a better way to encourage people to get out and explore the wild without taking from it? Even light impact has an effect, and it’s often irreversible. I knew of some of these organizations, so I asked them: If a dozen volunteers showed up on your doorstep Monday morning, would that be helpful? Some said no, because they didn’t have enough staff to handle them or they had really specialized needs, but most said, yes please! Everyone included in the book really wants to be in there—they need warm bodies and warm hands.
Talk about the process of finding all these organizations.
It actually was really difficult finding some of them. I relied a lot on word of mouth. I did it island-by-island, and each person I talked to, I’d send them a list of all the other organizations I had talked to or was thinking of and ask, did I miss anyone? Of course I’ve already met people since the book’s been released who didn’t know about it and want to be in the next edition. I want it to grow and expand, but hopefully it won’t become too encyclopedic—I still want people to be able to carry it around.
What are some of the things that make eco volunteerism on Maui, and in Hawaii, unique?
Hawaii is an incredibly diverse and isolated spot. It should be considered a special place that people want to preserve and protect because it’s such a rare jewel. The invasive species and creatures that are here, we brought them either knowingly or unknowingly. So it seems really important to try to reverse some of that and restore it as best we can. When you’re out in one of these remote spots, you step into another world that’s just humming with life and thriving from all the attention it’s getting. You’re working as a team with people you’ve never met before toward some common goal, whether it’s restoring the area or protecting some species of wildlife or educating the public. It’s so energizing and inspiring; it shows you firsthand that one person can make a change.
OK, so here’s the most common excuse: I’d love to volunteer but I just don’t have time. What’s your response?
I geared everything [in the book] to be short-term. Almost all of them are a day or less. There are a few really great programs that go on for a couple months, but everything is under three months. So it doesn’t require a huge commitment; you can try it out without feeling like you need to sign up for the long haul. Different people have different wants and needs. That’s why I tried to not make it a book of reviews, because everyone’s experience is different. One person may want to sit in their beach chair and count whales, another might want to hike ten miles a day and camp out in the backcountry. So hopefully there’s something for everyone.
It seems like volunteering, as opposed to giving money to a charity, is a good way for people to ensure their contributions are going straight to the source. What’s your take?
It is a really direct application of your desire to help out. Some people may prefer to sit at home, learn a little about a group, talk to someone on the phone and write a check. And that’s fine. But of course they’re not going to have the same experience as if they spent a Saturday afternoon out there actively doing something. Anytime you do something outside of yourself to help, it feels good. It’s hard to put it into words, but when you’re doing something that’s not self-serving it nourishes you, brings balance to your life. So many of us spend our time indoors at a desk, communicating through a machine. This is visceral, tangible, it engages all of your senses. It changes your relationship not just to your environment but to other people on the island and to yourself.
Is the book geared toward tourists, locals or both?
My hope is that it’ll be a resource for everyone. But with the economy the way it is, and people who live here not having as much money to travel, I really see it as a way of rediscovering our own islands and the diversity and beauty that’s literally in our own backyards. We’re such a multi-ethnic melting pot here, and it was really incredible to see people I met through these projects coming together. When you’re working as a team for a specific purpose, with a common goal, differences don’t matter. MTW