Internship Program Helps Businesses, High School Graduates Amid COVID-19 Crisis

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Intern Oriah Nagahiro. PC: Sarah Anderson Photography

A new paid internship program in Honokaʻa 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 Kō Education Center (KōEC), formerly the North Hawaiʻi Education & Research Center, which is Hawaiʻi Community College’s Hāmākua-North Hawaiʻi 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 KōEC 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.”

One of the interns in the program is Oriah Nagahiro, a Laupāhoehoe Community Public Charter School 2020 graduate, working with the Honokaʻa 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 KōEC’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 is already underway, applications remain open because KōEC hopes to continue the internships in the fall. Interns must be 16–21 years old and a currently enrolled student or recent alumni of Laupāhoehohe CPCS, Honokaʻa High School, Kanu o ka ʻĀina Charter School or, Kohala High School (Classes of 2018–20).


Businesses have the option of the traditional internship model in which they work directly with the intern, providing training and guidance. The other option is the “business-as-client” model in which the intern and an intern coachwork on a project for the business. This model relieves the business of the workload of managing the intern.

“One of the big barriers for businesses is they rarely have a staff person available to do that coaching or mentoring,” said Cerf.

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

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