Maya Kaup '17 stands up to her fears to champion important causes

by Erin Dahl ,

  • Maya Kaup '17
    Maya Kaup's love for animals is evident by the display on her car's dashboard.
  • Maya Kaup '17
    On weekends, Kaup volunteers at the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center in Salem, where she takes care of orphaned and injured animals. One of its permanent residents is Griffin, a blind turkey vulture.
  • Maya Kaup '17
    Although she prefers to avoid the spotlight, Kaup talked about founding the Food Recovery Network at Willamette University during a TEDxSalem lecture this fall. Nearly 450 people attended the event, and Kaup was the only student speaker.
  • Maya Kaup '17
    On behalf of the Food Recovery Network, Kaup packages leftovers at Goudy to deliver to the Union Gospel Mission in Salem.
  • Maya Kaup '17
    Since Kaup founded the Food Recovery Network chapter at Willamette a year ago, the organization has donated more than 13,000 pounds of vegetables, meat and pasta to feed the hungry in Salem.
  • Maya Kaup '17
    Named after Optimus Prime, a fictional character noted for his leadership and strong moral character in the Transformers franchise, Optimus is a 1-year-old turtle living at the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center in Salem.

Maya Kaup ’17 is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables. She can’t ride a bike, and she’s a self-proclaimed introvert.

Kaup offered these details about her life to 450 strangers at the third annual TEDxSalem lecture this fall. The only student selected to present at the event, she shared the stage with several speakers — including Willamette professors David Craig and Sukhsimranjit Singh — who each provided their definition of fearlessness.

For Kaup, fearlessness is standing up for what you believe — no matter what. That’s why the biology major founded the Willamette University chapter of the Food Recovery Network, volunteers at a wildlife sanctuary and aims to forge a career in animal conservation.

“Anyone can be a leader if they set their minds to it,” Kaup says. “If we’re capable of making a positive change in the world, we should do it. We have no excuse.”

Where There’s a Will...

The Food Recovery Network is a national nonprofit that unites students on college campuses to fight hunger by donating perishable, but usable, foods that would otherwise go to waste.

Although Kaup heard about the program as a freshman and believed in the cause, she had no intention of starting a chapter. She was new at Willamette. She already ran track, and she had a full course load.

But when she couldn’t convince her peers to start the chapter — and when an injury forced her to quit track — she used her newfound free time to take action. 

“I was scared and unsure if I could make the chapter work, but I did it anyway because it needed to be done,” she says. “If no one was going to do it, I would.”

So last year Kaup recruited about 20 student volunteers, enlisted the support of Goudy food service administrators and secured grants from the national chapter to purchase food storage containers. She also found two local shelters — the Union Gospel Mission and Women at the Well Grace House — willing to take the donations.

Each night, a few volunteers go to Goudy to collect lunch and dinner leftovers. They deliver the food via cars and a bike, and then the shelters repurpose it to make anywhere from 40 to 200 nutritious meals. The first of its kind in Oregon, the chapter has now donated more than 13,000 pounds of vegetables, meat and pasta to feed the hungry in Salem.

For UGM Food Services Manager Michael Kerrigone, the donations are “an answer to a prayer” — especially since the mission doesn’t have a food budget. 

“I’m such a big fan of Maya; she’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever met,” he says. “She is humble, powerful and bold. Her help makes such a difference to the guests we serve.”

Kaup, too, is proud of her accomplishments and hopes to inspire her peers to expand the program, such as by securing food donations from hospitals and restaurants.

“Taking the initiative to do something was really scary, but worth it,” she says. “It showed me what I’m capable of.”

Animal Devotion    

In another example of her dedication to worthy causes, Kaup cares for injured and orphaned animals at the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center in Salem.

She also secured a Willamette Carson Grant last year to investigate the distribution of the western gray squirrel from Eugene to Portland. Her research details where the squirrels are located and what people can do to protect their habitats.

“We need to be progressive,” she says about the near-threatened species. “We need to worry about animals, even if they are not on the brink of extinction.”

Kaup’s devotion to animals has impressed Craig, a biology professor who serves as Kaup’s advisor and Carson Grant sponsor. Over the years, Craig says he’s gotten to know Kaup as someone who continually puts her knowledge into action.

“She’s not waiting to ‘grow up’ or for ‘the real world’ after college to start to effect changes she wants to see in her community,” he says. “Maya is curiosity-driven, morally driven and driven to be exceptional. Based on her goals, I expect to encounter her as a peer and colleague working in the field of conservation and behavioral ecology.”

For now, Kaup is focused on her studies and working at Willamette’s Writing Center and Sparks Fitness Center. She serves as president of the Tri Beta Biological Honor Society, and she’s preparing her peers to assume leadership of the Willamette chapter of the Food Recovery Network.

But she’s already making progress on one of her most notable goals: to work as a sloth biologist. While studying abroad next semester in Costa Rica, Kaup hopes to intern at a sloth sanctuary and continue her research there after graduation.

“Sloths are slow and lazy, while I never slow down. I get things done,” Kaup says. “Maybe that’s why I like them so much. They’re the opposite of me.”