American Samoa youth sent home early from Hawaii Youth Challenge program over citizenship

The reason: U.S. nationals aren’t eligible to participate.
Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 11:01 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2023 at 10:28 AM HST
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2/15/23 UPDATE: The American Samoa youth were granted an exemption on Wednesday and are now allowed to complete the program.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After nearly five weeks in the National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy, state officials sent American Samoan youth home recently before they’d completed the program.

The reason: U.S. nationals aren’t eligible to participate.

State officials said they are trying to change the federal policy that bars American Samoan students from the program. But families said the state should have known to secure that exemption before they flew up.

Keona Grace Masuno, 17, was one of 24 students who left their homes in American Samoa last month to attend the Hawaii Youth Challenge Academy.

“I’m getting emotional because attending Youth Challenge changed me and I had everything planned out in there,” said Masuno. “I had my life planned out.”

Sisters Angelina and Athena Hunkin are also missing the program.

“I just feel sad because I’ve put all my heart, all my efforts into that program,” said Angelina Hunkin.

“Thinking that I will get somewhere in life and to help my family because they’re struggling a lot.”

The state’s Department of Defense said it made a mistake.

“I would like to express our deepest regrets for what these American Samoan youth and their families are going through as a result of this unfortunate situation,” said state DOD Director of Public Affairs Jeff Hickman.

He added there will be an investigation into what happened.

Officials recruited the group knowing that U.S. nationals were not allowed in the National Guard program.

“We are trying to request that exemption policy to see if we can have them stay, but once that was denied, we knew that we had to send it back because they would not be allowed to stay,” said Hickman.

Parent Carmen Matuu said she was never made aware of the policy.

“I had the pamphlet, nothing like this was told in the beginning,” said Matuu. “They said your kids will be well taken care of, all you have to do is provide the airfare and then the packing list.”

The state said it could take up to a year for officials in D.C. to change the policy.

Matuu hopes the request will be expedited.

“Now their dreams are shattered,” said Matuu.

“It’s a big disappointment and it’s going to be a mental breakdown for a lot of the kids.”

“American Samoa is a small territory so thousands of kids will graduate in a year and then there’s not enough jobs for everyone,” added Masuno. “And I think the youth challenge can be one of those opportunities for us as a territory and to be able to change that rule will be so great.”

Hickman said they’re reimbursing families for their children’s flights to Oahu.