Waking Up in Waihee: Advancing a Mission That Sustains the Soul

Blog Bonus! See for yourself what it’s like to wake up in Waihee with this sunrise time lapse.

What’s your happy place? If you are lucky enough to get there in person, how do you cherish and protect it? How do you honor its unconditional contributions to your well-being and ensure that it continues to thrive? In my new position with the Hawaiian Islands Trust, I face these questions every day.

At HILT, our mission is to protect the lands that sustain us, for generations. I joined HILT with simple orders: advance this mission. Protect the happy places that have provided, and still promise, an abundance and resilience for the communities that collectively care for them.

To understand that important mission, it helps to know the Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge, my new favorite happy place. HILT manages and stewards public access to this 277-acre treasure on Maui’s North Shore so that others may too experience the joy of waking up in Waihee.

HILT’s Malama Aina Camping Program recently provided me with a rare opportunity for total mission immersion. I set up camp the night before our annual Hoolaulea, an event that honoring the community volunteers who embody HILT’s mission to know, protect, and steward our lands.

Waking up in Waihee the next morning, generations of community members – human, plant, and animal – brought HILT’S mission to life. First, I greeted a Maui outdoor artist, who shared my appreciation the “green post” site at the end of the camping area. While he recreated the vivid landscape on canvas, the kupuna of Waihee welcomed us all into their sacred homelands, naming the generations of Waihee’s stewards, with every breath connecting us to a time before recorded Hawaiian history. Dr. Scott Fisher, HILT’s Associate Executive Director of Conservation (in his natural habitat) treated us to his beloved Talk Story on the Land guided hikes, tracing the impacts of centuries of human use - sometimes harsh, but sometimes incredibly nourishing.

Walking and learning these new lands should have felt foreign, but I felt a sense of familiarity in the natural, undeveloped seascape of its endless ocean waves - waves that you could watch, surf, swim, fish, or otherwise enjoy freely. I also felt the now familiar pull of my orders: advance the mission.

Throughout my career, I have helped inspirational institutions advance many worthy causes. Today, I am grateful for the chance to advance a mission that is truly extraordinary, far-reaching, and soul-affirming. I am grateful for the opportunity see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, and feel with my own skin the richer way of life that is possible when we act to know, protect, and steward the lands that sustain us. Most importantly, I am grateful for the grave responsibility and great joy that comes along with advancing such a deeply regarded mission.

As I begin to understand and appreciate the mission that we all share in Hawaii - to protect the lands that sustain us for generations - I thank my lucky stars for HILT, for the founders, donors, members, partners, and friends who have contributed to this soul-affirming mission, and for the lands that continue to inspire us.

Mahalo nui loa for your support – past, present and future – and for the honor to advance our shared mission to protect these special, happy places.

— Courtenay O’Connor

Associate Executive Director of Development