Kealaokekai Rapozo

Kealaokekai Rapozo has won an international competition in creating an Olympic lei. Photo courtesy of NTBG.

A Kaua‘i youth participating in an education program at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) has taken the top award in a prestigious international competition. Kealaokekai Rapozo and 10 other students in NTBG’s Kōkua ‘Āina Youth Initiative (KAYI) program crafted and entered “Olympic lei”, competing against hundreds of 11-19 year old students from other countries. NTBG received word on Monday that Rapozo had won and that five other students in the KAYI program would also receive certificates of commendation.

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), headquartered in London, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida invited young people representing botanical gardens in countries such as Bulgaria, China, Greece, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. to submit entries which best represented biodiversity in their country or region and create a wreathe “fit for an Olympic athlete”. BGCI is an international organization working to save threatened plants, bringing together over 700 members consisting mostly of botanical gardens (including NTBG) working together to accomplish this goal. The Fairchild Garden, located near NTBG’s Kampong Garden, annually conducts a themed challenge as an environmental outreach competition. This year Fairchild partnered with BGCI, choosing to relate the competition not only to the environment but also the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Rapozo and ten other KAYI students on Kaua‘i spent several weeks researching, collecting, and making head wreathes in the fashion of traditional Hawaiian lei. The students were led by Hawaiian cultural practitioner Sabra Kauka and NTBG’s Youth Education Coordinator Māhealani Yamashita, who oversees its KAYI program. After selecting and thoroughly studying native and other culturally important plants, the students were taken up to the forests of Koke‘e State Park to collect plant material for their lei. Under the direction of Kauka and Yamashita, students visited three sites to gather koa, pūkiawe, a‘ali‘i, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, ‘ōlapa, and palapalai ferns. Additionally, students collected hau branches from inside NTBG’s gardens in the Lāwa‘i Valley for use in making cordage for their lei, a meticulous two-week process.

The plants were selected as representative of Hawaiian forests and for their cultural and historical significance. Koa, for example, represents strength, while ‘a‘ali‘i and ‘ōlapa symbolize resilience and agility respectively, all suitable characteristics for an Olympic athlete.

In a statement submitted with their lei, KAYI students said, “like the Olympic games, Hawaiians had a culminating sport event called the Makahiki games. We related our garland project to how Hawaiians celebrated culture and athleticism with the giving of garlands to their victors and champions.”

NTBG’s Yamashita said the KAYI program, which melds Hawaiian values and culture with youth environmental education, was a perfect fit for this year’s competition. “Our students learned about Hawaiian plants, culture, and protocol, but they also learned the importance of teamwork and a shared responsibility to malama ‘āina (take care of the land),” she said.

KAYI’s students participating in the competition attend Waimea, Kapa‘a, and Kaua‘i High Schools, Island School, and Kaua‘i Community College.

National Tropical Botanical Garden is a not-for-profit, non-governmental institution with nearly 2,000 acres of gardens and preserves in Hawai‘i and Florida. Its mission is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions. NTBG is supported primarily through donations and grants.

Click here to view finalists.

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