Hometown Heroes: Despite pandemic, Keahole Center for Sustainability ensures educational program goes on

  • Candee Ellsworth. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • The Keahole Center for Sustainability (formerly Friends of NELHA) has hosted virtual workshops for students and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Keahole Center for Sustainability education manager Tara Spiegel-Lauder and executive director Candee Ellsworth created a program to teach students on the Big Island about local STEM careers and sustainable aquaculture businesses. The classes were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Candee Ellsworth/Special to West Today)

Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, West Hawaii Today is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Candee Ellsworth and her colleagues at the Keahole Center for Sustainability had everything ready to go for an educational program this spring to give students on the island an idea of the opportunities they have for local STEM careers.


The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on those plans — at first. But Ellsworth, along with the center’s education manager Tara Spiegel-Lauder, was determined to find a way to make the program happen.

“We pulled back, and re-evaluated and reconstructed that program, and what we found were we were now in this really great situation where educators were scrambling for content and we had it,” Ellsworth said. “So it was this perfect opportunity to offer these workshops.”

As executive director of the Keahole Center for Sustainability (formerly Friends of NELHA), Ellsworth and the center applied for and were approved for a Grant-in-Aid (GIA) from the state to stage their educational program for the 2019-20 school year.

“The idea was that we would educate the educators first. We would have them go through an engaging STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — workshop program on sustainable aquaculture and then they would bring their classes,” Ellsworth said. “So we were able to get the educator workshops done in-person, the way we wanted to. And then COVID happened.

“We had to figure out how to lead workshops that were engaging and inspiring, and had all the components that we wanted and planned on, and finish that and do it all virtually.”

Ellsworth said the center wanted the educational program to be hands-on. While the center is known for its tours of the sustainable aquaculture businesses and ocean conservation centers at Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology (HOST) Park north of Kailua-Kona, Ellsworth said she believes students retain knowledge better through hands-on experiences.

The program walked students through creating a plan for a sustainable aquaculture business like the ones found at HOST.

“We wanted it to be not just a tour or not just be a site visit, we wanted it to be where with each student, we would guide them through their learning journey,” Ellsworth said.

In all, this year the center hosted two STEAM workshops for educators and four STEAM workshops for junior high students, centered on sustainable aquaculture.

Ellsworth said the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for the program, to show students on the Big Island that tourism isn’t the only industry in their hometown.

“It was really to get them and the educators to know about all the opportunities that are open there for them in the high-tech STEM careers that they may not think of as possible for them here. And it would also give them an idea of career opportunities that aren’t just based on tourism,” Ellsworth said. “And now we’re in a situation where that is so important. Everything in our community and our economy is based on tourism or hospitality and we’ve seen how that affects our community during the COVID crisis.”

According to the center, HOST park is home to more 600 jobs in fields of renewable energy. In 2013, NELHA tenants generated $5 million in tax revenue for the state and that money spent by the tenants contributed to 617 jobs statewide with earnings totaling $28.9 million.

The Keahole Center for Sustainability’s outreach during the pandemic isn’t just for students either. The center is offering online virtual workshops, called Community Connection, while the center remains closed.

The virtual Community Connection is uploaded every Wednesday through the center’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.


“Everybody was in shock and it took us a couple of weeks, and we just decided we’re going to use this tool to educate the community,” Ellsworth said. “People have really enjoyed it.”

Know a Hometown Hero that should be highlighted next Wednesday? It can be anybody, from a youngster doing good for the community, to a professional helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or even a kupuna! Please send your nominations to cjensen@ westhawaiitoday.com with the subject: Hometown Heroes Nomination. Please include the hero’s name, contact information and what makes them a hero.

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