KIHEI - In the past 18 months, some Kihei middle school students have helped build a fishpond, picked pineapples to share with others and lunched with police officers in the school cafeteria.
The youth also have learned to make better choices while developing new interests through outings and community service projects with police officers and other mentors, as part of the Choice Mentorship Program.
"We got to see different perspectives, how our choices now affect our future," said 13-year-old Pouono Hafoka, a Lokelani Intermediate School 8th-grader who is among those participating in the program. "We have a chance to not go down the wrong path. We could change that right now so we have a good future.
Students (from left) Pouono Hafoka, Kevin Cacho, Viliami Makoni, Johnthan DeCova and Mo Malafu pose for a photo while visiting Mahele Farms in Hana on Dec. 23.
Kihei Youth Center photo
Isaiah Tanner (left) and Johnthan DeCova carry a load of pineapples that students picked at Haliimaile Pineapple Co. last year while volunteering for the Waste Not Want Not Foundation. The outing was part of the Choice Mentorship Program.
Kihei Youth Center photo
Kihei patrol officers Brianna Stice (in white) and Ryan Ehlers (in blue) joined students picking pineapples at Haliimaile Pineapple Co. last week. The group harvested 3,000 pounds of pineapples that would have otherwise gone unpicked as volunteers for the Waste Not Want Not Foundation, which distributes produce to organizations for senior citizens and low-income residents.
Kihei Youth Center photo
"Last year, I gave teachers attitude a lot and disrespected them. I would get bad grades. I brought those up. Now, I get A's, B's and C's."
Hafoka is among 24 students who participated in the program that was launched in July 2012 with a Project Safe Neighborhoods grant of $64,931 funded by the Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division of the Department of the Attorney General.
The Maui Police Department, which was awarded the grant, partnered with the Kihei Youth Center, Lokelani Intermediate and the Maui County prosecutor's office for the program.
At a graduation ceremony last month at the Grand Wailea, the students received certificates and goodie bags. Florence Nakakuni, U.S. attorney for the District of Hawaii, attended along with Police Chief Gary Yabuta and Capt. Tivoli Faaumu, commander of the Kihei Patrol District.
Lehuanani Huddleston-Hafoka, executive director of the Kihei Youth Center, said the organization is hoping to find other funding to continue the program for students in the "vulnerable" middle school years. She said the program is an extension of what the center is already trying to do by "being there" for youths. "This is a little bit more intimate," she said.
As word about the program spread, parents have called asking if their children can join. "There's a waiting list," Huddleston-Hafoka said. "It's really awesome."
Over the months, she said, the students in the program developed "a sense of family."
"They got to rely on one another, to help each other make better choices," Huddleston-Hafoka said. "Sometimes kids look for rewards or recognition from peers."
Mentors included about 10 Kihei patrol officers who went with students on some group excursions, stopped by Lokelani Intermediate to have lunch with students and visited with students at the youth center.
"It was also a great lesson for the mentors themselves to realize that the kids need somebody in the community they can go up to and say, 'I'm having a bad day. I'm having a hard time making a choice,' " Huddleston-Hafoka said.
Twelve-year-old Viliami Makoni, a 6th-grader at Lokelani, said he learned "to not be afraid to talk to other people."
"I loved this program," he said. "We had fun."
One highlight was the day the students visited the state courthouse building in Wailuku. Makoni had the chance to wear 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Bissen's robe and sit on the bench in his courtroom.
Hafoka said his favorite outing was going pineapple picking at Haliimaile Pineapple Co. with the nonprofit Waste Not Want Not Foundation, which uses volunteers to collect fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go unharvested. The food is donated to organizations for senior citizens and low-income residents.
To pick the pineapples, Hafoka and other students drew on their football-playing experience, tossing the pineapples to "receivers" while forming a line to the baskets where the fruit was collected. "It was good teamwork," Hafoka said.
Huddleston-Hafoka said the group picked more than 3,000 pounds of pineapple during an outing last week, bringing some of the fruit back to the youth center for the Tutu and Me traveling preschool program. "The kids are learning how their hard work pays off," she said.
Like some of the students, Kihei patrol officer Emily Kibby had some first-time experiences, including working on a fishpond, planting native plants and picking pineapples.
"From my perspective, it was a great experience," said Kibby, who helped come up with the idea for the program. "It was just fun. Middle-schoolers are just fun. We got to do a lot of neat projects."
The experience also was positive for her job, Kibby said.
"As a patrol officer, there are some really neat things that happened because of that relationship with the youth center and the individual kids," she said. "It helped me out in cases because I was known to the families.
"I saw lots of benefits as a police officer in my job because I had this relationship with the kids in the community. I was able to easier gain compliance with parents. There were benefits for me personally and professionally which were really positive and made my job easier because of the program."
The students helped with cleanup of the north Kihei police substation, which was renovated as part of the project.
Because the substation is in the same complex as the youth center, officers using the office to write reports will have more opportunities to see and talk with students, Kibby said.
Students said they felt more comfortable around the police officers.
"Before, I thought they were kind of mean all the time," Hafoka said. "Now I see them as normal humans."
"We see them as people," Makoni added.
Fifteen-year-old twins Alyssa and Alicia Crisafulli, now Maui High School freshmen, got to spend time with Kihei patrol officer Mona Matsui through the program.
"She said we could tell her anything because we could trust her," Alyssa said.
Alicia said her career goal has been to go into the military for four years, then attend college. "I like helping out," she said. "I want to be part of something."
After seeing officer Matsui working hard, "maybe my job in life after the military and college - maybe I'll be in the police," Alicia said.
Both girls said they keep in touch with Matsui by email.
"We got to know the police officers," Alicia said. "We got to work as a group and help out each other, help the community."
The students also visited the University of Hawaii Maui College, where they worked in the school garden and learned about some career options.
As part of the program, Kibby said she was working on tracking the students' grades and school attendance as one way of measuring change. But other changes are hard to quantify.
"I saw some attitudes change as time went on and the kids saw that," Kibby said. "They just warmed up to you. I wasn't this scary police officer coming to get them in trouble anymore. It went from calling me Officer Kibby to Officer Emily."
Hafoka's mentor was Hawaiian cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua. The teenager accompanied Kapahulehua as he did blessings around the island and helped with construction of the Moo'kiha o Pi'ilani voyaging canoe in Lahaina. Hafoka also learned to be a steersman for a canoe and paddled from Kihei to Lanai.
Hafoka said he now has an interest in sailing, and his attitude toward school has changed since he started in the program.
"At first, I didn't like school. I thought it sucked," he said. "But now I'm grateful for school. We need the education for life."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.