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John Leong

Photo of John Leong

Fellow John Leong from 2019 Obama Foundation Fellows.

Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

I can embarrass my daughters (9 and 12) with minimal effort!

The Bible

In Hawaiʻi, many low-income students lack the opportunity to graduate from college, let alone high-school. Without experience or skills, they exit the education system with limited prospects for employment. Meanwhile, traditional Hawaiian culture places emphasis on the environment, but too often youth become disconnected from these roots, weakening the ability of the next generation to steward the natural resources and resilience of the state. Talented youth without connection to place or their civic responsibility often leave Hawaii for lower cost of living and higher opportunities elsewhere, weakening the potential of Hawaii as a resilient island state.

Kupu (Opens in a new tab) develops a more resilient future for Hawaiʻi by engaging youth in outdoor service work, providing pathways into higher education and careers, and fostering leadership. About 400 young adults annually, the majority coming from low-to-middle income backgrounds, participate in service opportunities that create positive environmental impact at over 150 partner sites across Hawaiʻi and the Pacific region – from helping to replant over one million native plants to removing thousands of acres of invasive species to restoring Hawaiian fishponds. To date, over 4,000 youth have participated in Kupu programs and 88% of graduates have gone on to work or study in related fields. Kupu provides invaluable and transferable work experience, high school diplomas, college credits, and millions in funds to youth to support higher education and living wages annually. Kupu is building a strong corps of young environmental leaders while creating positive environmental outcomes for the region.

"There was a young man who entered our program who was homeless and using drugs. He was challenging to work with and after he finished the program in 2011, we didn't know what became of him. A few years later, a young man and woman visited our center. He was nicely dressed and introduced himself as the same young man who was in our program. He said our program got him on the right track in life and if it werenʻt for our involvement, he would likely be dead today. He now lives in Utah and works for a software company, owns a home, and has a fiancée. He said he needed to show his fiancée the place that saved his life.

He came at the right time because one of our staff members was having a hard time and wasnʻt sure if she was getting through to some of the more challenging youth she was working with. In a way, the man's visit was an answer to her prayers because she realized that sometimes we donʻt see the fruit of our work immediately. We need to persevere because we often can't see the final outcome in life."

-John’s organization, Kupu, was recognized by Governor David Ige as an example of extraordinary civic action during the 2020 State of the State Address. Watch the address + (Opens in a new tab)

-See how Kupu has pivoted their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch the video + (Opens in a new tab)