Home School

To teach environmentalism, Betty Gearen turned her home into a classroom.

Environmentalist Betty Gearen (center) in front of "The Green House" with teachers Jeremai Cann and Lydi Morgan.

Photo: Scott Kubo

Betty Gearen’s home in Pauoa Valley looks different from the other houses on the block. Large, white plastic bins—once filled with cooking oil from Love’s Bakery—hold gallons of rainwater. Bird feeders fashioned out of used milk cartons hang near her driveway. Butterflies and bees pollinate her garden of medicinal, edible and useful plants. Photovoltaic panels and a solar water heater blanket her roof. And—no surprise—a tan Prius sits in her open garage.

In her back living room, wood that formerly made up the gym bleachers at Punahou School now functions as a shiny floor.

Gearen’s home is more that just an ecofriendly residence; it doubles as “The Green House,” a learning center that offers classes to the public on how to live sustainably—in an urban setting. 

The idea was born in the spring of 2004. For six months, Gearen and a few friends had been teaching sustainability classes outside of the Sierra Club’s offices at the YWCA. Although popular, students began asking for more hands-on demonstrations as an alternative to the lectures. Gearen, a retired teacher from Punahou School, responded by opening her home. 

Today, step-by-step workshops include: How to use worms to compost food scraps; how to make paper out of plants such as ginger, pineapple and heliconia; how to build grey-water or rainwater catchment systems to water plants; how to create an edible landscape; how to cook macrobiotic meals; and many other programs.

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of visiting Gearen’s home is that you can see first-hand how easy it is to implement these practices at your own abode. For example, if you have plants that need extra water, such as taro, a nearby outdoor shower can both water the plants and get you clean.

“If you look at the way some of our grandparents lived,” says Gearen, “we aren’t doing anything new. “They lived on farms, grew most of their own food, built their own houses, used old cloth to make quilts; they didn’t waste. Now everything has become very simple. You buy your food and items, and then you throw away anything that you don’t want. It’s not sustainable.”

Throughout the school year, Gearen and three full-time teachers also travel to public schools throughout Honolulu to educate students and teachers on everything from recycling and gardening to what effect they have on the planet. The Kōkua Hawaii Foundation, the City and County of Honolulu’s Recycling Teaching Partners program, as well as Community Links Hawaii, have all worked with The Green House by way of grants and partnerships. 

“There is a joy that comes with connecting with other people,” says Gearen. “The energy that comes from that turns into hope and positive thinking and then you start to think that maybe change can happen.”

To register for a class at The Green House—which follows the school calendar year, and will resume in mid-September—visit www.thegreenhousehawaii.com or call 524-8427.