An eye on the future

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

As executive director of the Kihei Youth Center, Lehua Huddleston-Hafoka is changing lives — one kid at a time. POUONO HAFOKA JR. photo

You know that circus act — the one where they spin plates on the ends of poles without them ever falling off? Well, as far as metaphors go, that’s a typical day at the office for Kihei Youth Center Executive Director Lehua Huddleston-Hafoka.

But instead of spinning plates, she and her staff have perfected the balancing act of providing a safe, fun and positive place for kids ages 8 to 18 to go after school and during summer breaks. On any given day, the drop-in center sees upwards of 120 members (the current membership is around 760) who arrive in droves after school lets out. “That’s when the chaos begins,” Huddleston-Hafoka laughed. “But it’s controlled chaos.”

It certainly is. Spend an afternoon there and you’ll see it runs like a well-oiled machine: Kids check in, eat a snack, do homework, participate in activities and play a few games until it’s time to go home. Here, it’s all about the kids. “We are here for everyone,” Huddleston-Hafoka said. “There are no geographic restrictions, so we have a diverse group from different schools and different backgrounds.”

Long before she took the helm as executive director, Huddleston-Hafoka knew every square inch of the youth center — inside and out. “I grew up right across the street and I attended Old Kihei School until I was 7 years old,” she said. “It looked very different back then. My brothers and I would ride our horse down a dirt road from our house to the beach.”

When the youth center opened its doors on the grounds of the Kenolio Recreation Complex in 1983, Huddleston-Hafoka, then 13 years old, became one of its first members. “I loved coming here,” she said. “I never imagined I’d be the executive director someday.”

When she’s not writing grants, working with her staff or creating meaningful programs and activities, Lehua Huddleston-Hafoka (back row, center) is keeping a close eye on youth center members — and churning out teachable moments. “We make time to talk and listen to the kids, because we believe they can do great things,” she said.

The path toward the inevitable began when Huddleston-Hafoka discovered she had a knack for working with kids after landing her first babysitting job in middle school. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

After high school, Huddleston-Hafoka put her life’s plan into motion as a recreation leader, and later, a site coordinator, for the county’s PALS program. She eventually returned to her alma mater, Baldwin High School, to work as a part-time teacher and Parent Community Network Center facilitator. Then, 14 years ago, life came full circle for Huddleston-Hafoka when she became the administrative assistant at the Kihei Youth Center, and not long after, the executive director. “I have a connection to this place,” she said. “I grew up here, my kids grew up here . . . so it felt like I was coming home.”

Fourteen years later, one thing is abundantly clear: Huddleston-Hafoka is still in her element. “I love what I do,” she said. “There are so many things I love about my job. One of them is when the kids make me laugh with the funny things they say.”

When she’s not writing grants, working with her staff or creating meaningful programs and activities, Huddleston-Hafoka is keeping a close eye on youth center members — and churning out teachable moments. “We make time to talk and listen to the kids, because we believe they can do great things,” she said. “Our goal is to set them on the course of life so they are good people. That’s something that will benefit all of us.”

As part of their orientation, new members learn the “house rules,” along with behavior expectations, which include the center’s ABCs: a positive attitude, behavior and character. Huddleston-Hafoka and her staff also impart the Hawaiian value of kahiau (selfless generosity), along with the values of honesty, loyalty, integrity and respect. “Our primary service is a drop-in center, but when the kids are here, we teach them life skills and focus on leadership and character development,” Huddleston-Hafoka explained. “We also encourage them to just enjoy being a kid.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Huddleston-Hafoka receives plenty of heartfelt thank-yous: She’s been flagged down by grateful parents at Longs and Costco, and youth center alumni routinely pop into her office for a visit. But Huddleston-Hafoka is quick to point out that this isn’t a one-woman show. “It’s not an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without the staff, the board of directors and the parents. And if it wasn’t for the County of Maui, we wouldn’t be here.”

Huddleston-Hafoka also credits the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Maui Economic Opportunity, Maui Food Bank, Kihei Lutheran Church, Rotary Club of Kihei Wailea and other community partners for the continued success of the youth center. “It really does take a village,” she said. “We are so grateful for the community’s support.”

Huddleston-Hafoka calls the Kihei Youth Center her second home — and not just because she works there 40-plus hours a week. “The center has been so good to my family. Growing up, my brothers and I always knew it was there for us, and when I became a parent, my kids knew it was there for them, too,” she said. “Now, I get to give back to this place that gave so much to me. We all have a kuleana. This is mine.”

The Kihei Youth Center relies on grants and donations to keep its programs up and running; monetary or in-kind contributions are welcomed and appreciated. To learn more about the Kihei Youth Center or to inquire about membership, donor or volunteer opportunities, call 879-8698, email or visit

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.