Innovative internship helps Honokaa businesses

  • Kei-Lin Cerf. (Sarah Anderson Photography/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Oriah Nagahiro, a Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School 2020 graduate, is working with the Honokaa Business Association to develop their brochure and is learning photoshop to enhance pictures. (Sarah Anderson Photography/Special to West Hawaii Today)

A new paid internship program in Honokaa is bringing together local youth, businesses and innovation coaches in an effort to help the community recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout.

“We really felt that sense of despair moving through the community and our businesses, and it was especially evident in our high school graduates,” said Kei-Lin Cerf, director of the Ko Education Center (KoEC), formerly the North Hawaii Education &Research Center, which is Hawaii Community College’s Hamakua-North Hawaii branch. “And we felt the most important thing we could do is get them working on hands-on projects that showed a positive pathway forward and demonstrated innovation as a path to recovery.”


Community leaders came together in a volunteer group named Connect Aloha, to contribute to the COVID-19 response, helping with food distribution and making keiki masks. They also helped KoEC develop a unique internship program now known as the “Small Business Innovation Challenge.” It was designed specifically to help local businesses adjust to the new COVID-19 environment and reduce reliance on tourism. Under the program, a team that consists of an intern, a business seeking to innovate, and an innovation coach collaborate to help the business rebound and be more resilient in the future.

“I give a lot of credit to the Connect Aloha group,” said Cerf. “They invested their time and energy to provide us with the voice of real businesses, real parents, real teachers and real community members so that we could create something valuable for them.”

Interns, who work on projects remotely to maintain social distancing, may help a business establish online sales capacity or develop online functions to help with curbside takeout, for example.

“There will be lots of marketing and communications projects,” said Cerf. “We believe that aspect is going to help all of our businesses during this time.”

Oriah Nagahiro, a Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School 2020 graduate, is working with the Honokaa Business Association to develop their brochure and is learning Photoshop to enhance pictures.

“I originally joined because I love jumping into new opportunities and experiences I’ve never done before,” Nagahiro said. “I’ve learned so much since the day I started, having to work with many different types of people and managing time and schedules. It makes me feel more sure of myself because I have a feeling of what working with an employer is like.”

The internships, which are part of KoEC’s Careers Pathways Alliance for Student Success (CareerPASS), are already underway with 15 interns matched with businesses and organizations.

Interns get paid a stipend of up to $500 and are expected to work a minimum of 25 hours, with 10 hours of training and 15 hours of project work.

Though the first round of internships are already underway, applications remain open because KoEC hopes to continue the internships in the fall. Interns must be 16 to 21 years old and a currently enrolled student or a recent alumni of Laupahoehohe CPCS, Honokaa High School, Kanu o ka Aina Charter School or Kohala High School.

The program is funded with a Community Engagement and Resources grant from Kamehameha Schools West Hawaii Region.

“We value our community partners and know that working together we can make a difference in the communities where our Native Hawaiian beneficiaries live, and the programs that they take part in,” said Kaimana Barcarse, Kamehameha Schools West Hawaii region director. “It is great to be able to work with our partners as they develop innovative solutions to tailor a meaningful program to the unique needs of both the learner and business community in an area where internships were not the norm.”

Businesses don’t need to have projects specific to adapting to COVID-19 to participate. They can have interns working on other projects that will develop the interns’ college and career readiness skills.


The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope will host an intern who will develop an image repository and social media content calendar.

“Like so many other local businesses, our annual summer internship program was suspended due to COVID-19,” said Mary Beth Laychak, director of strategic communications at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. “The speed at which the Ko Education Center transitioned to a remote program was incredible.”

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