Students at work on a native Hawaiian planting project at Piliokahe Beach (commonly referred to as “Tracks”) in Nänäkuli. The Mälama Learning Center “adopted” the city-owned beach park with the goal of restoring a section of it with native plants to control erosion, beautify the area and engage the community.
Students at work on a native Hawaiian planting project at Piliokahe Beach (commonly referred to as “Tracks”) in Nänäkuli. The Mälama Learning Center “adopted” the city-owned beach park with the goal of restoring a section of it with native plants to control erosion, beautify the area and engage the community.

Student by Student, the Malama Learning Center is Helping to Change a Generation

Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

For most of her growing up years, Pauline Sato said she felt like “a weirdo.” While the children of her parents’ friends pursued careers in medicine or law or business, Sato was focused on taking care of the environment and saving Mother Earth. Although she didn’t have any mentors or close influences that pointed her in that direction, she concedes that she has always “marched to the beat of [her] own drum.”

“My parents were like, ‘She’s going to study what?’” the University Laboratory School alumnus recalled with a hearty laugh. They weren’t environmentalists, and neither was especially interested in outdoor activities. So their daughter’s career choice was definitely an eyebrow raiser for them.

“For some reason, environmental conservation and preservation just kind of stuck with me. It was a field of choice that helped conserve the place that I grew up in, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

After completing her bachelor of science degree in natural resources with an emphasis on environmental education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Sato decided to pursue her master’s degree in educational technology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.

Her interest and dedication to environmental preservation and education continued to grow while working for nonprofit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Bishop Museum, Mälama Hawai‘i and the Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawai‘i. Sato’s 30-plus years in preserving Hawai‘i’s great outdoors eventually led her to the position she now holds as executive and program director for the Mälama Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that strives to make Hawai‘i’s environmental preservation initiatives accessible and tangible.

“I think part of the reason why people are not interested in environmental conservation is that they don’t know what it looks like or what they can do to help,” she says.

The Mälama Learning Center was born out of Kapolei High School’s desire for a performing arts auditorium for the community and an environmental group’s wish for a conservation learning center. According to its website, the Mälama Learning Center serves as “a place in West O‘ahu that brings art, science, conservation and culture together to promote sustainable living throughout Hawai‘i.” The center’s services and activities include composting workshops, cooking demonstrations, beach cleanups, educational seminars, farmer’s market collaborations, sustainable art activities and reintroducing native plant species throughout the Islands. Sato is heartened to see how the Mälama Learning Center has impacted people who would not otherwise have access to learning about the environment.

“This is where the ‘citizen scientist’ comes into action,” said Sato. “You don’t have to study science to be a scientist, or study conservation to be a conservationist. Anyone can be a scientist or a conservationist so long as they show an interest in learning.”

Richelle Cabatic, a Kapolei High School graduate who is currently interning at the Mälama Learning Center, says her experience with Sato has heightened her awareness of her surroundings and taught her how small changes can impact a community.

“It was definitely an eye-opener,” said Cabatic, a junior at the University of Oregon, where she is majoring in physics. She was initially interested in joining Kapolei High School’s hiking club, which intertwined with many of the Mälama Learning Center’s community service events. Participation in the hiking club soon developed into an internship with the Mälama Learning Center and created a stepping-stone to her educational aspirations at Kapolei High School.

“I learned how much conservation and the environment is intertwined and that there is so much work that needs to be done in order to keep this island sustainable. Pauline helped me learn about what it means to be sustainable and that every little bit counts.”

Through Sato’s example as an educator and community leader, Cabatic gained the confidence to lead many of the Mälama Learning Center’s restoration days in Wai‘anae.

“We would meet at the school on a Saturday morning, grab the plants from the nursery and replant them in Wai‘anae,” Cabatic said. “It was easy because Pauline and everyone at the Mälama Learning Center had created such a tight-knit community. We would sometimes have over 50 volunteers come to help us.”

Although support for the Mälama Learning Center continues to grow, Sato’s goal is to remain “small and work with other corresponding partners.” She isn’t aiming for the Mälama Learning Center to become a big-name organization. What she really wants to do is help as many people as possible adopt a lifestyle that will mälama — take care of — both the land and the sea. If that means working herself “out of a job,” Sato is fine with that.

“That’s actually my ultimate goal,” she laughs. “To be out of business someday because everyone will be contributing to helping our environment. That would be something to see. I know it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but that’s why we need to help people see what that could look like.”

Sato’s vision and lifelong commitment and work to care for Mother Earth was recognized last year by the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, the state’s leading philanthropic institution, which selected her as one of only four Hawai‘i nonprofit leaders to receive its prestigious Ho‘okele Award. The award recognizes “exceptional leaders” in Hawai‘i’s nonprofit industry and comes with a $10,000 grant for each recipient to use for their professional development and personal renewal.

The Ho‘okele Award was presented also to: Kevin Chang, executive director of native Hawaiian land and sea conservation group Kua‘äina ‘Ulu Auamo; Brenda S. Ho, chief executive officer of Hospice of Hilo; and Heather Lusk, executive director of the Community Health Outreach Work (CHOW) Project, Hawai‘i. All four recipients were selected based on community nominations and their ability to think strategically and garner results, to bring different groups of people together, inspire others, make a difference in Hawai‘i and share their knowledge with enthusiasm.

In a Hawai‘i Community Foundation press release, president and CEO Micah Kane noted that, “Working in the nonprofit sector can be incredibly demanding, and we’re committed to investing in Hawai‘i’s leadership.” Kane added: “When a nonprofit’s leader is strong, their staff and organization can be more effective in better serving the community.”

For that reason, the Ho‘okele Award invests in strengthening the leaders by providing them with the opportunity to rejuvenate themselves, rather than risk having them burn out.

HCF said Sato “. . . has helped to build a broad network of individuals and groups dedicated to the conservation of natural, cultural and agricultural resources across the state. Mälama Learning Center uses a hands-on and place-based approach to learning, preparing its participants for diverse real-world experiences and 21st century careers.” The foundation noted that besides serving on several science and environmental education boards and councils, Sato also conducts a training program for the Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawai‘i. She was also previously honored with the Distinguished Service Award at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference for a career dedicated to environmental preservation.

Sato is determined to continue working to preserve Hawai‘i’s environment and is heartened by the demographics that show a growing interest in caring for Hawai‘i’s fragile environment. She is especially happy because it is a marked improvement from the early 2000s, when, while working for another environmental organization, Sato and her colleagues conducted a telephone marketing survey of over 600 people. They found that people of Hawaiian and Filipino ancestries were the most concerned about the environment and sustainable living in Hawai‘i. Much to Sato’s disappointment, however, of all the ethnicities surveyed, people of Japanese ancestry were the least concerned.

“There may be something that happened or didn’t happen in our Japanese culture that made us not care about Hawai‘i’s environment,” she says. Her recollections tend to confirm that survey finding, as she recalls being one of only a few — and in some cases — the only Japanese American in attendance at various environmental community events.

“A lot of it comes with cultural ideals, which I completely understand. But there are other ways of being successful than making money,” she says. “I think if we change all of our mindsets and spread the word that sustainable living can also lead to a successful life, then it’ll help other kids who want to go into that field feel as if they do have a place to thrive within the community.”

While Pauline Sato is living her passion every day by working to preserve Mother Earth, she is also quick to point out that Hawai‘i’s future depends on a collaborative effort among all communities and demographics throughout the island.

“We all have a responsibility to this island because we all live here,” she says. “We can’t just rely on others to make things happen for us. We all have to pitch in and help. That’s the only way we can survive and make it a better place to live for ourselves and future generations.”

The Mälama Learning Center is based at Camp Pälehua (formerly Camp Timberline) in Kapolei. To learn more about the Mälama Learning Center, visit Mä or call (808) 305-8287.

Kristen Nemoto Jay was born and raised in Waimänalo. She was previously editor for Morris Media Network’s Where Hawai‘i. In addition to pursuing a freelance writing career, she tutors part-time at her alma mater, Kailua High School, and is a yoga instructor at CorePower Yoga. Kristen earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and her master’s in journalism from DePaul University.


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