The Kids in the Club
The Boys and Girls Club of Hawai‘i gives more than 15,000 Island children and teenagers a better place to hang out than the streets.
Teenagers Josiah Kua and Jona Qoro stroll through the McCully clubhouse greeting youngsters, answering questions, urging kids to stand up straight before having their photographs taken. They are student leaders in the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii, volunteering 900 hours over two years in return for college scholarship money. But that tangible benefit seems secondary. They help guide 200 to 300 students a day in after-school sports and educational programs because they love it.
“I feel like I’m achieving something in my life,” says 19-year-old Jona. Despite the abundance of trained coaches and recreational staff, both understand the important role they play with kids between the ages of 7 and 17. “I think they can relate,” says Josiah, 17. “What we have is kind of like a sibling conversation.”
While the five Boys and Girls Clubs on Oahu, which served a total of 15,742 kids last year, attract a mix of students, from the top private schools to at-risk youngsters, executive director David Nakada is the first to admit that the competition from other alternatives is fierce: “We have to keep beating the street,” says the 26-year veteran of the statewide nonprofit. “We have to create value. If they’re not happy with what we’re providing for them, they’ll get up and leave.”
Jona and Josiah are even more forthright. Parents work late and aren’t available to supervise. Gangs hang out just down the street. Ice is so easy to obtain that children as young as 10 don’t even need to ask. Both Josiah and Jona had been tempted by these alternate routes. Now Josiah is so enthused about his involvement with the kids that he wants to become a teacher.
Michael Town, a circuit court judge and Boys and Girls Club board member since 1985, whose own son participated in the club, recalled a time when teens lost interest and began quitting. Nakada took note, and listened to the kids. The result was a series of new pursuits such as robotics—taught by University of Hawaii engineering student volunteers—and a state-of-the-art computer room with Internet access.
The value that Nakada wants to create has nothing to do with money. Membership costs $10 per year, and was lowered this year to $1 in honor of the Club’s 30th anniversary, for a variety of supervised activities from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Athletics are the foundation. At McCully, students play basketball, engage in a tennis lesson, start a pool tournament or a volleyball game or lift weights. But there’s also judo, dance and DJ classes. Homework assistance, tutoring and SAT preparation seminars are available as well. Even the scent of freshly cooked chicken floating in the halls makes the building feel a bit like home. Only more dynamic.
Beyond the daily programs, Nakada says the club tries “to give kids different kinds of experiences.” Some have never been in the ocean and can’t swim. So they’re invited to a sports and fitness day organized in conjunction with the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, and introduced to water sports. To follow up on what they learned, the club hosts swim and paddling clinics afterward.
Another life-changing experience is when the club receives a grant to take students to the Nutcracker ballet. The majority have never been inside Blaisdell Concert Hall, much less witnessed a live show. “The kids get to meet the performers afterward,” says Nakada. “It opens up a whole new horizon for them. They come away from that so amazed.”
Every clubhouse is different, catering to the desires of its clientele, notes Youth Development director Debbie Azama-Park, whose office overflows with lounging students eager to talk story with “Auntie Debbie.” Like many employees and volunteers in the club, Azama-Park is passionate about what she does, and devotes far more than 40 hours a week to the effort. She has worked to create an equal ratio of boys and girls at the club, and encourages gender-specific programs, such as robotics for girls.
Above all, she knows her mission is to instill values in the kids. “They’re creating meaningful relationships with their peers, staff, volunteers and the community,” she says. “Hopefully by the time they become teenagers, we’re teaching them how to give back to the community and the club.”
One key to that success is Nakada, who modestly deflects praise and requests for photos. He spent his early childhood on Kauai, then his mother moved him and his three brothers to Oahu for school, mainly because one of his siblings was deaf and she believed Honolulu offered more educational opportunities for him.
Though Nakada shouldered many responsibilities at home while his mother worked, he admits that he “wasn’t exactly a model son.” His grades barely earned him a high school diploma. Yet now he holds an MBA from the University of Hawaii. His humble beginnings in Hanalei “still have a tremendous influence on how I do the work that I do,” he says. “Everybody sort of helped each other.” This empathy is a gift. Adds Town: “David is very open to getting new information,” and he obtains it from all sources. He can speak perfect English, “or he can talk some serious Hanalei pidgin; he’s a man of all seasons.”
Lynne Wooddell, director of sales for AT&T business services, says a visit to a clubhouse impressed her enough to get involved with fund-raising. “All of the staff members are so good with these kids,” she notes. “They’re encouraging, positive and good role models, especially because some of these kids don’t have them.” But her real inspiration was Nakada. “David is such an amazing person; he believes passionately in what he does, and that really rubs off.”
More importantly, when constructive activities conquer the lure of the street, “there’s hope and opportunity,” says Town. “I know it saves lives.”
Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawaii Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawaii’s people. For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org
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