Boys & Girls Club provided door for teen’s emotional walls

Aaren Soriano’s life changed forever five years ago when he saw his father beat his mother at the Haiku Park and Community Center.

Her bruised and bloodied face left him with images that would “scar me for the rest of my life,” he said.

After a lifetime of psychological abuse from his father, Soriano, now 16, became “painfully shy” and began to build emotional walls around himself.

“However,” he said, “one of those walls had a door, and that door was the Boys & Girls Club.”

For his compelling life story and excellence in character, Soriano was named the Hawaii Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year earlier this month. The Kamehameha Schools Maui junior was one of four finalists from clubs across the state.

The selection weighed two written and orally presented essays, with one about post-high school plans and the other, which for Soriano was difficult to express, about what the club means to the member.

“That was tough,” said staff member and mentor Cathy Rudow. “It gets very personal, and it’s very draining . . . a lot of slow breathing and lots of listening.”

The topic of his father’s abuse is still difficult for Soriano to talk about, but his mother, Mandi Soriano, said the Haiku incident occurred when she met with the father to pick up Aaren and his two siblings.

During the exchange, the father, who she divorced a year earlier, told her he wanted to move to Oregon with their children.

When she declined, “it escalated from an argument,” she said.

“I don’t think any woman or any child should go through that,” she said. “That event changed our whole life.”

Aaren Soriano said he has not seen or spoken to his father since the incident, but he remembers suffering verbal and psychological abuse from his father since he was 3 years old.

After his parents’ divorce, Soriano said he had to take care of his younger brother, now 14, and sister, now 12, when they stayed with their father.

“We had to figure out how to get food on our own,” he said. “Personally, I wouldn’t know how they felt, but I know they experienced sorrow and pain as much as I did.”

Mandi Soriano filed an order of protection against the father, and applied for sole custody of the three children. Upon winning the case, she moved Upcountry and enrolled the children in the club’s Makawao branch.

“My mom told me I needed a place to go after school,” said Soriano, whose mother works as lead custodian at his high school. “So I just had to go . . . but over time I wanted to go.”

The result of his father’s abuse caused Soriano to become a “painfully shy” person, he said, which is something Rudow saw on the first day Soriano walked into the club.

“He was pretty quiet and would just observe the other kids,” she said. “You could tell he had sort of an inner strength, but it took quite some time for him to break out. There was some serious dysfunction in his life.”

Jill Delos Santos, another staff member who mentored Soriano, said he began to socialize and become active in the club about two years ago.

“First of all, he needed to find out who he was,” she said. “He just had no confidence, but lots of brains. Once he could trust (the staff), now we have this bond.

“He has grown into one of the most popular boys at the club . . . Other kids look up to him a lot. He’s just a great all-around kid.”

Soriano said he attends the club every day after school, including breaks and holidays.

“That’s what makes my day,” he said. “It’s mostly the atmosphere, and everybody cares for each other. Everybody is a family.”

Some of the activities he enjoys playing are ping pong, chess, billiards, basketball, dodgeball and even lifting weights.

A 4.0 grade-point-average student and member of the National Honor Society of Hawaii, Soriano also helps younger members with their schoolwork.

When asked why he never sought help for himself during his father’s period of abuse, he said “I guess, there was a part of me that was afraid.

“I try to learn from the hard times in my life,” he said. “Learn from it and move on.”

He said the experience has taught him how to be a “real man,” not governed by “physical strength,” but through “love” and “responsibility.”

The junior aspires to attend Stanford or Yale and become a lawyer.

“I want to help people with their legal problems and protect the community,” he said.

In July, Soriano will travel to California for a regional selection and vie for the national Youth of the Year honor.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached