Kihei teen participates in conservation project

Working 10-hour days hauling debris, constructing a boardwalk and cleaning up in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy wouldn’t be an ideal summer project for most college students.

But for Kihei’s Jamal William Garcia, it was something that inspired him. The 18-year-old sophomore-to-be at Wake Forest University in North Carolina wouldn’t mind doing more backbreaking work as long as it helps the environment.

The 2012 Maui High School graduate recently returned from New York, where he and nearly 20 other young adults from all over the country were chosen to spend a week to assist with the ongoing cleanup effort at Gateway National Recreation Area. It is a national park of more than 26,000 acres made up of land and water in New York City and New Jersey. Most of the area was affected by Sandy last fall. The storm toppled trees, damaged buildings and left behind tons and tons of debris.

“From this experience, I would definitely like to get involved and keep that conservation and keep that motivation going,” Garcia said via phone from Kihei on Monday.

He said he would like to participate in more programs sponsored by the Student Conservation Association, which has organized a Sandy Recovery Project. American Eagle Outfitters, a teen-to-young-adult clothing company, sponsored Garcia and other young adults for the all-expenses-paid volunteer event with the student conservation group for one week in New York.

The volunteers camped in the National Park Service area where they spent their days removing debris including weeds and trash and cleared beach-access trails. There was no running water, but the team washed dishes with biodegradable soap and a through a special rinse-and-bleach process.

The group spent its time cleaning Floyd Bennett Field, which is in the park. The field is dedicated to aviation history, sports and the outdoors. The area is an old airport and a point of departure for famous aviators, including Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, according to the park’s website.

It was Garcia’s first time to New York, and he was learning through very different experiences. But a familiar object appeared during one of his cleanups – a coconut. Garcia said he wasn’t sure where the coconut came from, noting there weren’t any coconut trees around. But it reminded him of home.

In fact, Garcia said it was his personal feelings about being close to the land in Hawaii that inspired him to volunteer and write an essay to qualify for the volunteer project.

“I just knew growing up in Hawaii, we have that personal connection to our environment. I know that I just wanted to bring that to another scale,” he said. “I basically told them (in the essay) . . . how much I love the land. It’s important to take care of your land and give back.”

Garcia told The Maui News that it is his family’s way of life and his grandfather, Amancio Garcia, taught him conservation and how to live off the land.

At the family’s Kihei home, the Garcias have a garden filled with mangoes, okra, lettuce, eggplant and tomatoes, to name a few.

“Everything my mom cooks for dinner we grow from our garden,” he said.

The family has a compost pile, which he said he used as fertilizer for his newly planted lettuce.

“It’s good fun. It’s very rewarding to eat what you planted,” he said.

Garcia said that his grandfather always had a green thumb and told him to take care of what one has.

Garcia and his crew were assembled as part of an online contest that let voters decide where the crew would conduct its project.

“We’re very pleased to bring together such an extraordinary group of individuals to restore parks severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy,” said American Eagle Outfitters Foundation Director Marcie Eberhart. “The crew sets an important example for this generation and the admirable ways you can Live Your Life,” she said in a statement.

There was also time for a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to Central Park.

Garcia remains undecided about his college major, but in the meantime he would like to continue work with the student conservation group. The organization develops conservation leaders by providing college and high school students with service opportunities in all 50 states, from urban communities to national parks and forests.

“It was a blast. I had so much fun,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at