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Building STRENGTH of character

May 25, 2008
By LEHIA APANA, Staff Writer
It’s 4:45 on a Tuesday afternoon. Sounds of metal weights clanging together, barbells slamming onto padded floors and grunts of exertion boom throughout the tiny room as the smell of warm sweat and cold steel trace through the air. The adrenaline is palpable as a group of teenagers sit in a line waiting to test their strength.

This is the scene at the Queen Emma Athletic Club, where dozens of youth gather each week to work on their lifts, squats and technique. At a glance, the atmosphere appears no different than any other high school weight room. But this place is different. Besides building muscle on the outside, the youth here are also learning what it takes to be strong on the inside.

“The barbell is just a tool. The real goal is to create an environment to build character,” says head coach and founder Keku Akana.

Akana started the club in 2003 as an outreach program of Good Shepherd Church in Wailuku to serve at-risk teens, teaching them Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding and sport-specific weight training. It was originally housed in the Wailuku Gym on Market Street and later moved to its current location behind the church. Today the program serves nearly 40 youth ranging from ages 10 to 19.

“The main goal is to use athletics to build self-esteem, character, respect for others and encourage sound academics and work ethic,” Akana says.

As former competitive powerlifter, former University of Hawaii football defensive lineman and retired Maui deputy chief of police, Akana leads by example. He is supported by a team of experts, including assistant coach Donald Kanemitsu, a former competitive powerlifter and currently a police lieutenant; Emmitt Rodrigues, former competitive powerlifter and record holder and currently a deputy sheriff, Brian Okada, five-time flyweight division national champion and former record holder; and Chris Titianco, who started with the program at Wailuku Gym.

“It’s an interesting dynamic having the kids work with the law enforcement guys … I mean the law enforcement guys, their occupation is one of service anyway,” Akana says.

Akana and company work to fill any voids in each youth’s life, providing them the opportunity to bond with positive adult role models and participate in wholesome activities and structured programs.

“Athletics has always been a magnet for youth, so the theory is to use athletics to serve at-risk kids … We’ve had several kids teetering on dropping out of high school and the program created some stability for them,” Akana says.

He highlighted one student in particular to show what the club can do for youths.

“One of the first girls we had, her parents were incarcerated and she was in foster care. But she was very strong and started coming here and found good discipline. She ended up having a 3.5 GPA and graduated from high school. Now she goes to MCC and works part-time,” he says.

Fourteen-year-old Layson Hoewaa considers himself another success story. The 5-foot-8-inch, 230 pound athlete credits the club and coaches with straying him away from an otherwise troubled path.

“Coming here definitely helped me with school and staying out of trouble,” he says. “It keeps me busy and away from things like drugs.”

Hoewaa currently holds the state high school clean and jerk record in the super heavyweight division, surpassing the record of 292 pounds set in 1997. He’s also a triple-threat athlete, excelling in football, baseball and track at Baldwin High School.

Hoewaa credits his powerlifting coaches with keeping him in sports and away from destructive or unproductive activities.

“I come here because of the coaches. They’re all cool and everyone supports each other. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be in sports,” Hoewaa admits.

Ken Kanemitsu, 14, agrees.

“There’s always the physical aspect, but there’s also that feeling of having someone care about you. Their coaching doesn’t stop at the weight room. They teach you life lessons and how to be a better person,” he says.

So far the club has served nearly 300 youth, with more showing up each year. News of the program has spread mostly through word of mouth and recommendations from peers.

“We let it be known we’re here, but we haven’t actively sought out kids,” says church Senior Warden K. Peter Lee. “It won’t really work if we reach out. The kids have to come to you because they’re interested.”

The club was established to benefit at-risk youth, but it has evolved into a mixed bag of kids who come for a number of reasons.

“Besides the at-risk kids, there’s also the ones who are here training for their specific sport … We’ve never turned anyone away. We help whoever we can,” Akana says.

The club meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays and some designated Saturdays. Training sessions begin with a warmup, followed by technique work, power clean and back squatting sessions. Each day ends in a prayer and a positive thought.

“It’s a very simple but aggressive workout,” says Akana. “A large majority of the kids don’t know what they’re getting into. I don’t think they’ve worked this hard in their life.”

Thanks to donations from church parishioners, the program is free for the kids. The club budget covers expenses for equipment, registration fees for weightlifting contests, club T-shirts and occasional potlucks. As a reward for proving their dedication, lifters who stay with the program for at least one year receive a pair of weightlifting shoes.

In return, lifters are expected to participate in at least one community service event per year and an annual act of mercy. While many of the kids are not church members, they are also encouraged to attend at least one church service a year.

“We introduce the kids to the church, but what we’re doing is not evangelical … it’s pure service without any motive,” Akana says.

The lifters will have a chance to show off their strength during the Clean & Jerk Contest beginning at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the church hall. Youth lifters of various ages and weight classes will compete in the event, which is free and open to the public.

The purpose of holding a formal competition is to build self-esteem, confidence and discipline, Akana says.

“It helps teach life skills and prepares them for the reality of competition in life.”

He adds that the program is just another tool to nudge kids in a positive direction, and more like it are needed here on Maui.

“Hard work is one of the tools to build the youth. We desperately need programs of all kinds that build character and encourage young men and women to be leaders for the future.”

• Lehia Apana can be reached at

Article Photos

Queen Emma Athletic Club head coach and founder Keku Akana works on technique with Tuimana Mateaki during a recent training session.

The Maui News / LEHIA APANA photo

Fact Box

Heavy lifting
• Who: Good Shepherd Church’s Queen Emma Athletic Club, 2140 Main St. in Wailuku
• What: Clean & Jerk Contest, with a potluck to follow
• When: 10:30 a.m., Saturday
• Where: Church’s Lufkin Parish Hall, Main Street in Wailuku
• Contact: 244-4656



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