Kupu ʻĀina Corps Hired 350 People for ‘Green Collar’ Jobs with CARES Act Funds

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The Kupu ‘Āina Corps workforce development program, created in 2020 to address the drastic effects of COVID-19, hired more than 350 people for “green collar” jobs using federal CARES Act funding.

Kupu is Hawai‘i’s leading conservation and youth education nonprofit.

Using an economic impact assessment developed by Columbia University, Kupu estimated the work produced from September to December 2020 provided more than $6.5 million in economic benefit for Hawaiʻi, more than twice the estimated cost of the program.  

Kupu partnered with the State of Hawaiʻi and used the federal funding to provide short term work and training opportunities for displaced workers and recent graduates impacted by COVID-19.


The program participants were selected from more than 1,000 applicants and logged more than 89,000 staff hours at 150 host sites across the islands. Nearly half of the positions were on neighbor islands.

More than 90 percent of participants were retained for the entire length of the program. Based on a survey, one in three participants were able to stay working after CARES Act funds were no longer available, and nearly half of the participants are either currently working or pursuing higher education.  

Post program evaluations also indicated other positive impacts. On the ecological front, Kupu ʻĀina Corps participants collectively cared for more than 21,000 acres of land in Hawaiʻi by removing invasive species; planting native plants; clearing debris; and managing precious natural and cultural resources. 

“We’re pleased at the outcome of the program, which started out as a proactive response to community need and an effort to revitalize our state’s economy that was adversely affected by COVID-19,” said John Leong, Kupu’s chief executive officer. “This program got people working in meaningful jobs. It supported businesses, farmers and non-profit organizations in agriculture and conservation, and it was economically impactful for our state.  


“Overall, hope and aloha were deployed into our community through everyone who supported Kupu ‘Āina Corps, including our local and federal government, partner sites, staff and those who participated in the program. We’re hoping to continue to sustain this after 2020 and are looking forward to other community partnerships that will help make this possible.”  

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism appropriated the funding for the program, and Governor David Ige and the Hawaiʻi State Legislature made the funding available.  

Participants included 27-year-old Mariah Liʻawahine Haʻo of Oʻahu. She was working as a food and beverage services supervisor at Outrigger Reef Beach Resort on Oʻahu when she lost her job due to the pandemic.

Through the workforce program, Haʻo found joined Pohaha I Ka Lani, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit based in Waipiʻo Valley. She cleared Guinea grass; removed invasive plants from choking out native species; planted various Native Hawaiian trees; tended to various overgrown loʻi kalo; and learned different styles for mulching and propagating plants.


“Spiritually, I connected myself to the wahi pana of Waipiʻo and feel extremely blessed as a kanaka to have that opportunity,” Haʻo said. “This experience has affirmed my change in career. I’ve worked in tourism for most of my adult life but this has made me rededicate myself to ʻAina. A major lesson I’ve learned is true perseverance. Personally, It has been a difficult few months and this job has helped me establish different levels of steadfastness.” 

Kupu pivoted towards workforce development in an effort to respond to the state’s economic crisis and make use of the experience and abilities it has developed as a regional provider of internships and longer-term employment in natural resource management. While the funds that sustained Kupu ʻĀina Corps are no longer available, Kupu will pursue other funding opportunities to support its response to community needs.  

Kupu is only able to do its work thanks to its partners and financial supporters. To donate to Kupu and for more information on the Kupu ‘Āina Corps program, please visit: kupuhawaii.org/ainainnovation.


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