Boys and Girls Club celebrates first leeward after-school program

  • Keiki from the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island After School program at Kealakehe Elementary School perform a Christmas Program Thursday.

  • Keiki from the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island After School program at Kealakehe Elementary School perform a Christmas Program Thursday. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Almost immediately after Chad MK Cabral accepted the position of CEO at Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island, he noticed a problem.

The nonprofit’s name indicated it was an islandwide organization, yet its presence was noticeably absent from leeward shores. So over the next year and a half, Cabral took steps to remedy that situation.

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After 65 years on the island, BGCBI in September opened its first youth development support program in West Hawaii, which is specific to the Kealakehe region.

Though the club has been helping families in the area since early fall, it celebrated its new branch Thursday afternoon at Kealakehe Intermediate School, in part with a Kealakehe Youth Choir performance of Christmas songs for the kids’ friends and family. Jasmine Branco, director of development at BGCBI, said it was the children themselves who had the idea for the performance.

She added that initiating the program in West Hawaii was a significant challenge, as BGCBI struggles mightily with financing — the staff using their own cellphones for work purposes, paying all their own travel expenses and often conducting business with the lights off to save on electricity.

But the demand in West Hawaii, Branco explained, was simply too great to ignore.

“There’s such a huge need at Kealakehe,” she said. “We didn’t have the funding to be there, but when you think about the children and their parents, what are the parents going to do?”

Before BGCBI’s arrival, Kealakehe was down to only one after-school program, the A+ Program, after the federal government last year pulled financial support for two others, Branco said.

The A+ Program costs $110 per month and requires proof that both parents work during after-school hours. It’s difficult even for families who meet the qualifications and can afford the cost to take advantage of A+, as the waiting list is incredibly long, Branco explained.

In the meantime, approximately 5,000 youth in the Kealakehe region were living at or below the poverty level in 2013, according to information provided by BGCBI.

Five low-income housing projects are located within 5 miles of Kealakehe schools and the organization provided statistics indicating a significant portion of the student body at Kealakehe Elementary School failed to meet math, science and literacy rate standards in 2016.

In other words, a little help from BGCBI can go a long way. And so far, Branco said, it has.

The organizational program is built on three pillars — academic support, mentorship and leadership, and healthy lifestyles. The club offers homework support and semi-organized sports tailored to the specific sites.

Branco said many of the activities are youth-driven.

“Our number one goal is to be a safe place for kids to be after school hours,” Branco said. “What makes us attractive to the kids is that it’s not an extension of school. It’s more of a fun place to be with your friends and some cool aunties and uncles.”

Three direct staff members administer the Kealakehe Program, which serves around 70 children between the ages of 6-17. There are 45 more on the waiting list to gain entry into the club, which operates between the end of school and 5:30 p.m. every day.

The cost of membership is $10 per year, the same as it was 65 years ago.

Branco said more staff training will take place over the winter break, as BGCBI is anxious to absorb the current need, which is expected to increase as word of the opportunity spreads.

“We’re anxious to get those children off the waiting list,” she said.

BGCBI serves roughly 1,000 children every year, many of whom attend daily, across several locations including Hilo, Keaau, Pahoa, Pahala and some community outreach in Ocean View.

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The Kealakehe program, like many of the others, is reliant on community collaboration. It is afforded space by Kealakehe School and shares playground space with the A+ Program. The only stand-alone location exists in Hilo.

Those families interested in placing their names on the waiting list for BGCBI’s Kealakehe program may do so by calling the organization’s administration office at 961-5536.