Middle schoolers travel thousands of miles for weeklong giveback in Hawai‘i, discover the Aloha spirit

The West Oakland Middle School students left their families and homes in Oakland, California to travel more than 2,000 miles to Hawaii where they learned how to be mindful visitors.

As Maritza Contreras jumped into the crystal-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean to snorkel for the very first time – long-forgotten was the anxiety she felt just five days prior when she was back home in Oakland, California. 

“I was sad, I cried because I was going to miss my mom,” Contreras said.  

The eighth grader at West Oakland Middle School was set to embark on a trip filled with many firsts: her first time on a plane, the first time she was thousands of miles from home and the first time she’d traveled without her mother. 

“My mom told me to have fun because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she was proud I was chosen to go,” said Contreras. 

The 14-year-old was one of 12 West Oakland Middle School students who bid their parents farewell to go on a community giveback trip to the state of Hawai‘i last week at no cost to their families or school. As part of Alaska Airlines’ commitment to invest in youth and care for the communities we serve, we surprised the group with the seven-day trip to the Islands in partnership with STATE Bags. The family-focused bag brand’s co-founder, Scot Tatelman, co-created the program last year called Travel Academy when he took eight Brooklyn-based students on a transformational excursion throughout California. 

“Anyone who has traveled can speak to that feeling. When you land somewhere new and experience all that place has to offer, it feels like your world has opened up just from having seen it,” Tatelman said.  

“This partnership reflects both companies’ commitment to creating connections through travel and providing opportunities for young people to experience the world of aviation,” said Daniel Chun, Alaska’s Hawai‘i Director of Sales, Community & Public Relations.  “For over 15 years, Alaska has had the privilege of flying our guests to one of the most beautiful and amazing places on the planet, with service to four Hawaiian Islands from seven West Coast cities.  We are mindful of the impacts of travel and how important it is for both residents and visitors to mālama (to care for) this very special place so future generations are able to enjoy it.” 

While the backdrop of this year’s trip was the natural beauty of Hawai‘i, the students’ mission every day was to learn about how to become mindful visitors of the Islands by giving back to communities on O‘ahu and Maui. Soon after their arrival, the group walked knee deep into a lo‘i (taro patch) to help harvest the root vegetable at Kualoa Ranch while learning its important role in the Hawaiian culture. They worked with the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute staff to rehabilitate a Hawaiian green sea turtle that had recently been injured out at sea. The group also learned about the importance and uses of native plants at Kipuka Olowalu, a Native Hawaiian cultural site on Maui. 

“I’ll never forget about the people, what I experienced and what I learned about with my friends while in a beautiful place,” said Maritza.

Maritza at Kualoa Ranch, where she and other students learned how to harvest kalo (taro), a root vegetable that plays an important role in Hawaii’s culture.

“It’s just beautiful, I love how the people of Hawai‘i respect their living space,” said 14-year-old Latanya Nolen. “There’s a lot more research I want to do to understand the culture here, it’s opened my eyes. I’m thankful to have this opportunity to experience something we’ve never done.” 

“We created an itinerary that allowed the students to both give back to the community while immersing themselves in the history, culture and beauty of the Islands. Whether it’s through one of their volunteer activities or simply speaking to locals about how their home is impacted, if we’re not careful while we visit—the students have told me they’ll forever have a space in their hearts for Hawai‘i thanks to this gift of travel,” said Maria Cid, communications program manager for California.   

We hope these students establish a meaningful connection with one of the most beautiful places on earth and share the message of mālama with their friends and family when they return home,” Chun said. 

The message seemed to be sticking for one of the youngest in the group. Anaya Sarfraz, who celebrated her thirteenth birthday while on the trip, now has a newfound hope that tourists do more than sightseeing while in the Aloha state.  

The students first visit at an Oahu beach was extra special. They learned about marine life etiquette, including how to have fun in the water while respecting the reef.

“If you visit, please learn about the history first, dig deeper than just visiting the beaches and you’ll find the beauty around you even more interesting,” Sarfraz said.  

For seven days, the students woke up and immediately ate breakfast together; only separating as a group when it was time for bed.  

For many, the peers among them were only faces they’d seen in passing at school or maybe connected briefly with in class. The students had applied for the Alaska Airlines and STATE Bags sponsored 2023 Travel Academy with an essay and were chosen by their principal based on their leadership skills. Now they were rooming with a classmate they’d likely never spoken a word to before heading to Hawai‘i, including Sarfraz. The seventh grader, however, quickly found her nerves dissipate.  

“I started talking and learning more about each of them, it’s been a surprising experience getting to know each other, and now I can say everyone here has become like family to me,” she said. 

Next month, the eighth graders of the group will graduate and prepare for high school, including Contreras who tried something new every day in Hawai‘i after setting aside her fears at the start of the week.  

She can now say she took part in returning an endangered sea turtle to the ocean, learned how to protect marine life while snorkeling, flown on a plane and ziplined through a tropical forest. 

All twelve students say they discovered the Aloha spirit through the people of Hawai‘i and will bring that back home with them to the Bay Area — and hopefully, wherever they travel to next.  

I’ll never forget about the people, what I experienced and what I learned about with my friends while in a beautiful place,” Contreras said. 

A Special Mahalo

Behind this incredible trip were some remarkable organizations and businesses who we are proud and grateful to partner with, including:

The Twin Fin | @thetwinfinwaikiki 

Royal Lahaina Resort | @royallahainaresort 

Kualoa Ranch | @kualoaranch 

Maui Ocean Center | @mauioceancenter 

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa | @uhmanoanews