It's been 30 years since the Kihei Youth Center first opened its doors in 1983, but the core values that guide day-to-day operations have not changed.
"Adults then (in 1983) felt there needed to be a place for kids to call their own . . . and there always needs to be a safe place where kids can call their own, where they can be nurtured and valued with caring adults supervising them," Lehua Huddleston-Hafoka, the center's executive director, said Thursday.
The Kihei Youth Center started at Kenolio Park in 1983 with about 30 children. Now, there are more than 600 youths registered. Bryson Barron (foreground), 11, and Maile Alger, 12, practice their back tucks Friday afternoon outside the Kihei Youth Center. “It’s a really fun place to go after school,” Bryson said.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The entrance to the Kihei Youth Center at Kenolio Park
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Kihei Youth Center members Paige Sichmeller (from right), 10, Kimberley Mojarr, 8, and Natalia Parda, 8, build houses with dominos Friday afternoon.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Lehua Huddleston-Hafoka, says she’s strict with kids “because we care”
Huddleston-Hafoka remembers being among the first to attend the youth center when she was 13 years old, and having "a safe place to go" after school. Members of the Kihei Canoe Club, as well as other community leaders, had decided to start a community-based nonprofit organization in February 1983 to help address the need for positive, healthy and supervised activities for the children of Kihei. They chose to house the facility at Kenolio Park, along South Kihei Road, in a couple of portable buildings that used to house the Old Kihei School.
Over the years, the oceanfront property at the north end of Kihei has grown to include a structure that includes a homework room with six computers, an office, an open dining area and a kitchen. Outside, the center shares basketball courts and a baseball field with the county-owned Kenolio Recreational Complex.
There are now more than 600 children, ages 8 through 17, registered with the youth center, and there are about 120 kids at the center on any given day after school.
"We're going to grow out of our capacity, and that's a good thing," said Huddleston-Hafoka. "But where we go from here, I don't know."
There is a possibility that the center could expand to add more rooms at the current site or move to a bigger space at the South Maui Community Park, located next to Lokelani Intermediate School, but funding is and has always been the major challenge, administrators said.
"Kihei is one of the fastest-growing areas here in Maui, yet we only have one (youth) center, and we cannot get the financial (support)," said parent Ana Makoni, who serves as vice president of the center's board of directors.
With only three full-time employees, staff members often stay later than their scheduled hours, and when there are too many children at the center, administrators will call volunteers to ask if they are able to come in and help, Makoni said.
Most of the center's funding comes from Maui County, Huddleston-Hafoka said, but it also partners with community organizations, including Maui Food Bank, which donates snacks; and Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., which provides bus transportation for many of the children coming to the center after school. The center has also received grants from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as well as private donations and proceeds from community fundraisers.
Any interested youth may join regardless of demographic restrictions, as long as they complete a membership form. The cost of membership is $10 per child for the first year and $5 per child each year after.
The center offers scholarships that cover the cost of membership for nearly 90 percent of the youths who attend, according to Huddleston-Hafoka.
Even with limited funding, though, Huddleston-Hafoka runs a tight ship at the center. While children have the freedom to prioritize their own schedules between homework, snack time and outdoor recreation, the staff members do their best to communicate with parents and teachers to make sure the kids are staying on top of their schoolwork. After years of working with Kihei educators, Huddleston-Hafoka has accumulated a directory of teachers' phone numbers, which she may use to double-check whether or not a student has homework, she said.
"Ask anyone, they know I'm strict," Huddleston-Hafoka said. "But I'm strict because what's carrying on our shoulders, these parents trust us and believe in us, so you're darn right I (am) not gonna let you (kids) run indoors or use bad language, but it's because we care. If we didn't care, we'd let you do whatever you want."
In addition to homework help, staff members also prepare free snacks, facilitate sports competitions, organize field trips and share cultural activities including hula or ukulele lessons. The center accepts children of all races and backgrounds "no questions asked," and has hosted youths from Russia, Japan and France.
"As a working parent, it alleviates a lot of the pressure," said Makoni, a mother of six children who attend the youth center. "Me and my husband both work, so it is very helpful to know there is somewhere for them (the kids) to go. . . . And it's not just the (academic) curriculum; the staff teaches them good manners here like knock before you come in, no swearing."
Despite the house rules that may seem strict at times, most of the children at the center want to come back, year after year.
"It's a good place to be; you can get your homework done, make new friends and just hang out," said Reylana Namauu, a 15-year-old sophomore at Maui High School who has been coming to the youth center after school for four years. She added that her favorite activity is "when everyone plays" in games like kickball, flag football or dodgeball.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.