Paying it forward

Lahainaluna students take Best Buddies program to heart with life-changing results

Lahainaluna senior and Best Buddies member Joshua Mendoza (center, in aloha shirt), poses for a photo with Krystaleia Bettencourt (from left), president of Lahainaluna’s Best Buddies chapter; Alison Somilleda, Best Buddies Maui senior program manager; son Julian Somilleda; Mendoza’s “best buddy” Markus-Alan Bettencourt; Miguel Valdez Resendiz of All Kine Sounds; and Baldwin High graduate Brandon Cachola. Mendoza was announced as the recipient of an all-expenses-paid graduation party during the islandwide Best Buddies dance at Lahainaluna on March 3. All Kine Sounds helped fund Cachola’s graduation party last year and wanted to pay it forward. Photo courtesy Eva Valdez

Joanne and Alex Mendoza were running errands in Wailuku one day when, to their surprise, their teenage son Joshua walked up to a friend and eagerly said, “Hello.”

Joshua Mendoza was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, and social anxiety is a part of everyday life. So to watch him approach a friend in public was a big deal to his parents, and part of the reason they moved to Maui in the first place.

“This kid really came out of his shell, not just in school, but everywhere since we moved here,” Joanne Mendoza said.

Maui has held more blessings than the Mendoza family expected, including the recent announcement that Joshua Mendoza will be the recipient of an all-expenses-paid graduation party, a pay-it-forward event started by a local couple and their son for Maui kids in the Best Buddies program.

Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that fosters friendships and job opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the high school level, the program pairs students with peers who have special needs. They’ll go to dances, hang out during lunch or in between classes, “just what normal teenage kids would do,” Joanne Mendoza said.

Joshua Mendoza has “thrived” since coming to Maui, mom Joanne Mendoza said. “We will do everything we can to stay here as long as we can, because the community embraced him,” she said. Photo courtesy Joanne Mendoza

“That’s what we needed him to be. We needed him to be included,” she said. “When we were in California, people would just look at him strangely. Here he could go anywhere in the island . . . and he will either make a friend, or see aunties and uncles who say hello to him.”

The Mendozas are originally from Los Angeles. After their two older kids went off to college, Joanne and Alex Mendoza moved to Napili three years ago hoping Joshua would fare better in a smaller, more laid-back community. Plus, he loves the ocean, said Joanne Mendoza, who works for a couple of resorts in Kaanapali, while her husband is an information technology consultant.

Doctors diagnosed Joshua Mendoza with autism when he was 3 years old. His parents had noticed he was regressing in the areas of speech and attention span. At first, doctors thought it was attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, but further testing revealed cognitive and social disabilities.

Autism, in general, refers to a range of conditions that include challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to autismspeaks.org. Signs of autism vary by child. When Joshua Mendoza was first diagnosed, he stopped talking. He was reluctant to hug people. It took just over a year before he started talking again and making friends.

Joanne Mendoza wishes people would stop thinking there’s something wrong with autistic kids, and instead understand that they just see the world a lot differently from other people.

“Some parents think . . . it’s a punishment,” she said. “It’s more of, you were given that child because someone up there knows you could handle it. You consider it a gift. Since they look at the world differently, maybe you should do the same.”

Joshua Mendoza still deals with some cognitive issues and takes a service dog with him everywhere except school to help with social anxiety. But since joining the Best Buddies program at Lahainaluna High School, he’s become increasingly outgoing, said Kathy Bettencourt, an educational assistant with Lahainaluna’s special education program.

Bettencourt’s daughter Krystaleia is a senior and the president of Best Buddies at Lahainaluna. Her son Markus-Alan, who attended Lahainaluna but is now home-schooled, was chosen to be Joshua Mendoza’s best buddy.

“They hit it off,” Bettencourt said. “They never look bored. They’re always in conversation. I don’t know what they’re talking about all the time, but I see it happening.”

About 20 Lahainaluna students participate regularly in Best Buddies. This year’s group has been one of the most active in recent years, and has helped many of the kids in the special education program feel comfortable and included, said Bettencourt, who encourages students to “just be yourselves” and not be afraid to interact with peers who have special needs. Joanne Mendoza said it’s “those regular things,” like getting invited to carpool with Markus or sleeping over at a friend’s house, that mean a lot.

On March 3, Lahainaluna hosted the islandwide Best Buddies dance, where Joshua Mendoza was announced as the winner of the graduation party. The gesture was inspired by Brandon Cachola, a 2017 Baldwin High School graduate recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

Last year, Eva Valdez, husband Miguel Valdez Resendiz and son Alan Urquio helped throw a graduation party for Cachola, who’s been in a wheelchair since he was hit by a car in May 2015. Cachola dreamed of becoming a DJ, and the family, who runs an audio-visual business called All Kine Sounds, donated equipment to Cachola and helped him DJ his first party.

This year, Urquio again wanted to do something for Cachola. The family came up with the idea to “pay it forward” — they’d choose a senior Best Buddies student and help fund his or her graduation party in Cachola’s honor. Since the dance was held at Lahainaluna, they decided to pick a student from the school’s program and settled on Joshua Mendoza.

“We were so happy, but I think he was a lot happier than we were,” said Joanne Mendoza, adding that family from California and Florida plan to attend her son’s graduation in May. “It’s not even the party, to tell you the truth. It’s just the gesture. It means so much to us.”

All Kine Sounds plans to donate its services to Joshua Mendoza’s party and is looking for community members willing to help, whether it’s by donating food, photography services or money to reserve a venue or fund Joshua Mendoza’s future.

Joanne Mendoza said her son will continue with Lahainaluna’s special education program, which he can attend until he’s 21, while joining the nonprofit La’akea Foundation in Paia, which offers independent living and job opportunities to adults and youth with disabilities. Joshua Mendoza also likes to work with animals and could do a job along those lines in the future, his mom said.

Next year, All Kine Sounds will help Joshua Mendoza pay it forward for another graduating Best Buddies member if he so chooses. Valdez said that between working the night shift at a boys’ home and her husband’s two jobs cooking for Hotel Wailea and Kimo’s, the couple barely sees each other. All Kine Sounds is their chance to spend time together, make a little money and give back to the community. They plan to “find all means to make it happen for Joshua.”

“We have a six-year-old autistic son ourselves,” Valdez said. “When he grows up, we would love to have him have this opportunity as well.”

For more information or to donate to Joshua Mendoza’s party, contact Valdez at 870-6104.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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