Budget cuts could shutter Youth Challenge Academy’s Hilo campus

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 4:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - On a sunny morning at Keaukaha Military Reservation, cadets in white t-shirts and black shorts chant as they march in tightly formed rows.

The military-style training looks like boot camp, but it isn’t.

“We are not here to train soldiers,” said Kuulei Kekuewa, deputy director of Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy Hilo Campus.

Under the watchful eyes of current and former military members, cadets as they are called perform activities that teach discipline and help to develop character.

“I know this program works. I have seen it in my own family. And I have seen it with all the youth that have come here,” Kekuewa said.

But after 11 years and the graduations of hundreds of cadets, this could be Hilo’s final class.

Youth Challenge is under the state Department of Defense, which is dealing with budget cuts. So the program is on the chopping block.

The 22-week program provides training for teens who need guidance. They work on projects, earn a high school diploma, and plan their futures.

When cadets graduate they are monitored for a year by a Youth Challenge supervisor, who tracks their progress to make sure they are working their plan..

Taryn Summers graduated in 2019.

“Youth Challenge showed me that there’s a consequence for everything you do in life. Whether it be good karma or bad karma, you’re going to get it,” she said.

There are two Youth Challenge programs in Hawaii. One is on Oahu.

The Hilo academy works with Big Island youth and teenagers from the neighbor islands. Its focus is more rural and cultural. Before COVID, cadets volunteered in community service projects on farms.

“We need to learn about what the land does, what we can do for the land to help the land, what we can do in exchange for everything,” Kekuewa said.

During the pandemic, cadets are relegated to duties and chores at the facility.

Makenna Kuratsu is sure it will help her plan the rest of her life.

“I plan to either try out college, or piloting, or mechanics. Or I plan to join the military,” she said.

Levi Willshein enlisted in the Army after he graduated from Youth Challenge Hilo in 2019. He hopes state lawmakers find the funds to keep it going.

“Every time I think of Youth Challenge, and everybody that I know, they just think positive things because they know how much it helps the youth and the community,” he said.

About 60 cadets are enrolled in the 2021 class. For the next five months they will concentrate on putting their lives in order.

Kekuewa said they are encouraged to live disciplined lives.

“We are here to help these youth become confident,” she said.

It starts with showing them how to take steps in the right direction.

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