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Students volunteer for planet

by Desiree Ramirez, stuff writer


Spring break has come and gone once again and, while some may have been laying on the beach, working, or even studying, one group of students was out enjoying an interisland travel adventure and making difference through volunteer conservation activities.

Volunteer Planet is an international 501(c)3 non-profit, charity organization based in Honolulu. The mission of the organization according to their brochure is to “provide safe, well-organized service programs that address the needs of host communities while promoting cultural exchange and experiential education.”

So what exactly does that all mean? Volunteer Planet’s Executive Director, HPU graduate student, James Owen, explained. “Volunteer Planet does volunteer work based on the needs of the community we are visiting. We go in and ask the people what they want done and how,” said James.

The organization’s first project, over the spring break, was on Maui where nine volunteers camped at Wai‘anapanapa State Park in Hana for six days. Six of these were HPU students. The group worked on restoring a section of the King’s Highway, a trail that circles the island. Volunteer Planet worked on a three-mile section of the path along the coast.

“Using machetes, rakes, and sickles, we had to cut through a lot of trees and remove obstructions, and we picked up a lot of trash” said Owen.

The group worked four to five hours a day and then was able to have time for fun. This included snorkeling; cave diving, hiking to waterfalls, laying on the beach, and even picking ‘opihi--a Hawaiian limpet snail that is a delicacy eaten raw. The volunteers each paid $375, which covered roundtrip airfare, land transportation, meals, and beverages.

Owen started Volunteer Planet in July 2004, after nine years in Hawai‘i during which he earned a bachelor’s degree from HPU in international business. In 1998, Owen began working at Discover Hawai‘i Tours. During his first year at HPU he became the vice president and eventually gained ownership of a small percentage of the company. James left the company in May 2004, although he returns to help from time to time. From this experience James learned that there are good and bad ways to travel. “It’s purposeful and meaningful travel instead of just sight-seeing, you’re actually getting involved.”

Volunteer Planet is a three-part program with a cultural focus on each aspect. The first part is service work for the local community. The second part is the educational aspect. The volunteers learn about the history and culture of the place to which they travel. The third part is the fun activities that are enjoyed after the work is completed.

Owen says that Volunteer Planet is going smoothly. He runs the organization with the help of a small developing team. “After talking to others in the non-profit world, I’ve learned that the organization needs to be run professionally, like a business” said Owen. “We need to look at our competition and figure out how we are going to fit into the market.”

Owen and his team meet once a week to discuss new strategies and administrative costs for future trips. Volunteer Planet has two trips scheduled, one to Sri Lanka in November, and to the Big Island in May which will include backpacking and camping. “Volunteer Planet has started small,” Owen said, “but we want something bigger. I want people to walk away and think ‘wow,’ we really made a difference.” If you are interested in finding out more about Volunteer Planet or going on the next trip, contact Owen at



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