Hamakua Youth Center set to expand, meet after-school needs

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HONOKAA — For nearly a decade the Hamakua Youth Center has served the youth of Honokaa, providing a safe haven where children ages 6-18 can go after school while their parents are at work.

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HONOKAA — For nearly a decade the Hamakua Youth Center has served the youth of Honokaa, providing a safe haven where children ages 6-18 can go after school while their parents are at work.

According to its Executive Director Mahealani Maiku’i, they serve anywhere from 30 to 50 children daily. Students get snacks, help with their homework and experience a wide variety of activities infused with Hawaiian traditions and values.

“We teach multicultural keiki and give them a foundation of Hawaiian culture to help keep them grounded,” Maiku’i said. “The Hawaiian culture is what brings our communities together.”

Students do not have to be Hawaiian to participate at the youth center.

“Anyone can join. We don’t discriminate, and we also serve special needs people,” she said.

Best of all, the activities at the youth center are free.

It’s a winning formula. The Center has grown steadily since becoming a nonprofit 501c(3) corporation nine years ago.

With a growing demand, it has now reached capacity in its current location on Mamane Street across from the Honokaa High School. Fortuitously, with the help of the community and the center’s seven-member board, a new location has been found.

Later this year, the center will move into the historic Okada hospital — a facility with three times the space and conveniently located next door to HYC’s current spot.

The 12-bed hospital was built in the 1930s by Dr. Haruto Okada, who practiced medicine in Honokaa for more than 40 years. After his death in 1983, his wife’s death in 1999 and the death of their only child in 2012, the property was donated to the University of Hawaii Foundation.

The foundation, in turn, agreed to sell the property to HYC, who filed an application for financial assistance from USDA Rural Development to purchase and renovate the hospital. On April 12 the groups met in person in Honokaa.

Earlier this month HYC started an online GoFundMe campaign with a fundraising goal of $30,000. Their ultimate goal is $150,000.

“The money we’re seeking is to help with renovation costs,” Maiku’i explained. “We want to take down walls so we can open up the spaces to accommodate our participants.”

The Okada building had a hospital ward as well as a kitchen and residential space. HYC plans to establish a certified kitchen in the space that can be used by students as well as the community at large.

The new youth center will have a study room, game room and an arts and crafts room. They also plan to turn one half of the building into a new teen center featuring a student lounge, meeting room, recording studio and media center.

Currently, there is no place for older teens to hang out there, nor is there a teen center in Honokaa, Maiku’i said.

Monetary donations are welcome.

“The important thing is that people donate from the heart, because they understand the value of our programs,” Maiku’i said. “I really feel a youth center is vital to the health of a community. If there had been something like this when I was in school, I’m pretty sure a lot of my classmates would have had better opportunities available to them.”

Just as important as financial contributions is in-kind support provided by various Honokaa organizations and individual volunteers to HYC. Board members and other community members have contributed thousands of hours.

With volunteer help, over the past year HYC children have toured Ke Kai Ola, a health care facility for monk seals in Kona; visited the Honokaa police station; Mokupapapa Discovery Center; Laupahoehoe Train Museum; Kahaluu Manowai; and learned about opae (shrimp) spawning.

Additionally, volunteers come to the Center to teach. Some teach cooking and baking classes, while others teach ceramics, drawing and robotics. The youth center and its volunteers also plan and participate in their major fundraiser, an annual hula festival.

In recent years, HYC has expanded its reach to teach students basic life skills such as cooperation and leadership. Children are also learning about the importance of sustainability, raising egg-laying chickens and planting native Hawaiian plants and other crops at their half-acre school garden nearby.

“Part of our gardening program is to help the children learn about sustainability,” Maiku’i says. “They hear the moolelo (stories) of the Hawaiian plants grown at the garden, making the connection that our ancestors help to feed and nourish our bodies as a whole.”

Eggs from their chickens are used in cooking classes and for snacks, and extra eggs are shared with the children’s families.

Cultural exchanges are also part of HYC. In partnership with the Honokaa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple’s Peace Committee, chairperson Miles Okumura has helped plan a series of after-school workshops with a goal to encourage harmony among the ethnic and demographics grounds in Honokaa. At the workshops students learn about a specific culture’s language, food, cooking and contemporary music.

Okumura said, “We have strategized working with the youth center because they are the most active, go-to institution in town when it comes to working with children and students. They are singular as an agency in the Hamakua area when it comes to trying to provide inspiration and moral education for youth.”

For her part, Maiku’i refers frequently to her kuleana, or personal sense of responsibility.

“Being from Hawaii and part of a huge family, I was always immersed in ohana,” she said. “As the youngest of seven, it was my responsibility to take care of the youngest cousins, or nieces and nephews. That’s my kuleana in the family — to make sure everyone’s happy and to take care of the kids.”

Now, it’s Maiku’i’s kuleana to not only care for the Honokaa keiki, but also to pass on a sense of kuleana to each of them. Teaching the youth to take responsibility for their actions can be life changing. It raises their self-esteem and helps them realize they can achieve great things.

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“We believe in embracing the importance of youth,” Maiku’i said. “Everything we do is always done with aloha for the keiki first.”

Contributions to support the renovation of Hamakua Youth Center’s new facility can be made at www.GoFundMe.com/HamakuaYouthCenter or HamakuaYoungCenter.org