These Students Learn Computer Programming on Minecraft

Purple Mai‘a, a nonprofit organization, teaches coding and other digital skills to underserved keiki.
Photos: Odeelo Dayondon


Entrepreneurs Olin Lagon and Donavan Kealoha had been talking story about something for a while: a nonprofit that would bring marketable skills to underserved children in Hawai‘i communities, like the ones they grew up in. These two self-taught coders want to empower students to compete in a high-growth industry in which they normally wouldn’t stand a chance. In other words, a social game-changer.


Enter Purple Mai‘a, the duo’s innovative nonprofit that is funded by Hawai‘i Community Foundation, Consuelo Foundation, Island Insurance Foundation, Atherton Foundation, Dean Levitt of MadMimi and Hawai‘i People’s Fund. In its first year, the nonprofit has brought coding and other digital skills to a class of students at Jarrett Middle School. The students’ current project? Building a digital Pālolo ahupua‘a on Minecraft. Along with fellow founding member Kelsey Amos and coding mentors from their personal networks, Kealoha and Lagon are taking a nontraditional approach to education, with a cultural focus that marries indigenous Hawaiian land-based technology with contemporary technology. After all, both building an irrigated lo‘i and writing a computer program share a few fundamental skills that have far-reaching applications: problem solving, understanding systems, inputs, outputs and how to design for the needs of a user.



For these students, drawing parallels between modern and ancestral technology builds a sense of identity and empowerment and brings the lesson alive. Says Kealoha, “It’s more meaningful, especially for Hawaiian kids, if you can make it connect up with who they are as far as their cultural identity goes—as makers of culture.” 


Jarrett Middle School students learn the basics on Minecraft.

The Jarrett Middle School ‘ohana of 15 students is only the beginning. The team has plans to expand the program’s reach to three more schools in the next year, and to further the Purple Mai‘a cultural initiative with community cultural practitioners joining the team of mentors. Think trips to the lo‘i and research into community mo ‘olelo, alongside app-production and coding-skill development. There’s even talk of larger initiatives, such as intensive coding boot camps for adults, in which graduates would become mentors for Purple Mai‘a classroom visits. The bottom line: It’s all about building a community—an empowered community.


For now, though, Purple Mai‘a is focusing small, one step at a time. It’s about building a passion project, a vehicle for connecting students with the means to succeed. “My long-term dream is to be able to fund one of the kids who comes through my program and has the skills,” says Kealoha, who is also a tech investor. “I just think it’s good to have people who think differently, who look differently, to be involved in industries that seem to be on an upward trajectory.”


Did you know? Purple Mai‘a’s name was inspired by this ‘ōlelo no‘eau: He mai‘a ke kanaka a ka la e hua ai, “Man is like a banana tree on the day it bears its fruit.”