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Mālama Learning Center emerged from the vision of Pauline Sato, an environmental educator, and the late Al Nagasako, the principal of Kapolei High School at the time, to bring a positive change to the keiki (children) and ‘āina (land) of West O’ahu. Since 2014, this educational organization continues to provide students of West O’ahu with face-to-face, hands-in-the-earth learning opportunities. Through activities facilitated by Mālama Learning Center, students grow native plants, restore native habitats, and discover the joy of engaging with the environment around them, all while giving back to their own communities and making Hawai’i better, one workshop at a time. 

When Pauline Sato returned to Hawai’i after being away at school, she knew that she wanted to do something to benefit the environment and the community. David Orr’s written gem, “What is Education For?” powerfully guided Pauline’s next steps after graduating from the University of Michigan. “His writing spoke to me,” says Pauline. “If we’re not going to use what we learn for positive change, what good is the education?” She found her own answer: to help the natural environment of our beautiful planet. She realized that in all her studies, she had learned little about the environmental situation of her home island, O’ahu. 

“I was learning all about the midwest during my studies in Michigan,” says Pauline. “In an ecology class I decided to research the native Hawaiian honeycreeper.  From one pair they evolved into many types of breeds. They were more significant than Darwin finches. That got me thinking I really needed to learn about Hawaii’s nature. I committed myself to going back to Hawai’i once I graduated, and to do what I could to help Hawaii’s ecosystems. I didn’t think I’d create an organization but one thing led to another…” And look where she is 30 years later!

“There are so many ways to be a conservationist,” comments Pauline. “You can be a scientist, lawyer, researcher… but for me, the route was as an educator.” Her love of education led her to Kapolei High School, one of the newest high schools on O’ahu at the time. Principal Al Nagasako’s enthusiastic willingness to help Pauline develop a program to unite students with the land fueled her mission. At the time, Pauline offered her ideas for a small educational enrichment program to bring students closer to the ‘āina in a way that would empower, educate, and perpetuate a balanced interaction between the land and the people of West O’ahu. Nagasako expanded that vision to include the entire Kapolei High School, now growing to incorporate schools from Waipahu to Waianae (nearly all of West O’ahu). “Al wanted every student to be part of what I was talking about,” recollects Pauline. “He was thinking big. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to learn about their place.” 

Thus was Mālama Learning Center born at Kapolei High, where it remained until 2020, when the organization moved its headquarters to Pālehua (above Makakilo) during the pandemic. Students learn how to propagate seedlings, especially focusing on Native Hawaiian flora. At Mālama Learning Center’s nurseries, they nurture starter plants until they are ready for planting. Once plants are strong enough, participants take the plants to the organization’s restoration sites in areas of West O’ahu, to rehabilitate the ecosystem.   

“Our aim is to have a healthy watershed, attracting birds, and insects,” says Pauline. Students are restoring West Hawaii’s natural habitats from the mountains to sea (mauka to makai). “Students are very engaged,” shares Pauline. “It’s the real life application that can supplement classroom learning.” Mālama Learning Center focuses their work on degraded lands that are accessible to our community. 

A new project has fallen into the hands of Mālama Learning Center. Cal Hirai developed the television show Outside Hawaiʻi to bring positive change in how people relate and care for the land that they live on. This statewide television show on Spectrum OC16 frequently featured the good work of Mālama Learning Center. Before his passing in December of 2020, Hirai gifted the show to Mālama Learning Center. Outside Hawai’i continues its good work and Pauline is dedicated to the mission of its founder living on.

Pauline Sato continues to be a significant steward of Hawaii’s environment, dedicating over 30 years to environmental preservation. Her passion for bringing positive change to the ‘āina is sparked further by the motivated students who participate with Mālama Learning Center. “We really encourage students and teachers to do the exploration with us,” says Pauline, “then we empower them to take the next steps. And some do…We don’t claim to be the experts. We all learn together. Our mission is to teach and also inspire people to create a healthy living environment – in ourselves, and in our surroundings.” Pauline explains that if the land isn’t healthy then the people can’t be either, and she’s dedicated her life to seeing us rise in good health – from the ground up.

To learn more about Mālama Learning Center visit www.malamalearningcenter.org

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