Many years ago, there was a busy neighborhood alongside a cane field and ironwood groove on the edge of idyllic Paia Bay. Within the tin roofs and wooden walls, the houses sheltered migrant workers from the nearby sugar plantations. Now flash forward, through the tsunami of 1946, to the 1990s. Now there’s just one house still perched on the crest of the sand. It’s graffiti-scarred and sagging, yet bursting with potential.
Recognizing a need to provide some sort of safe place for kids age nine to 19, the community dedicated the house to the new Paia Youth & Cultural Center (PYCC). Through the salty, sandy, fun-packed years, the non-profit has grown and thrived and now offers several life skills programs, including film and music production, a radio station, a cooking class and an adventure/challenge program (disclosure: I work at the center as a Drop-In Program Specialist).
Most immediately obvious to passers-by is the Stonewave Sk8park. Through the swishing roar of the ironwoods and the crash of the surf, the sounds of skateboard wheels on cement, music and kids having a blast reverberate through the parking lot. The 10,000-square-foot park has several looping bowls shaped like the bottom of a swimming pool, a mini bowl and flowing sections with smooth transitions, as well as street props and a quarter pipe. It took several years to develop, design, fund and construct the park. After some setbacks and lots of community support, the park opened its concrete ramps to the public in 2005.
The Youth Center and the kids who use its services have always had a strong connection to skateboarding; in the ‘90s, the center featured a halfpipe that very many kids, now in their 20s, spent hours ripping. In the past, the skate program has been run by several notable figures in the community, including Blaze Anderson, whom untold numbers of Maui kids count as their mentor.
The PYCC recently brought on a new director, Ryan Worcester, 29. Originally from a coastal town in Maine, Ryan has a melting-pot resume that includes having been a sponsored athlete for several action sports, including BMX. He’s worked as a writer and photographer for multiple companies and magazines. He’s worked building terrain features for ski resorts and has helped with planning skateparks in several cities. “I’ve been recreating and working in skateparks for most of my life at this point,” he says.
“Anyone can skate here,” Worcester says of the Stonewave Sk8park, despite the common misconception that it is for Youth Center members only. “There is a great cross section of people who come out to skate and I’d love to see even more people coming to enjoy the facility.” For a small fee ($5 per day or $15 per month), skaters can visit the park from Tuesday and Wednesday 3pm to 7pm and Thursday through Saturday 3pm to 9pm.
Orion Milligan, 16, has been frequenting the skatepark for several years. “I come almost every day,” he says, with his brothers Sunny, 14, and Clay, 12. “It’s awesome.” Milligan’s dedication to the park has been made into an actual position; he assists the director with skatepark operations, from sweeping the ramps to making sure everyone wears a helmet. As we sat and chatted about the skatepark, he was busy changing the music in the center and making sure a young child had his waiver signed as one of his brothers came in, salty and sandy from the surf.
Skateboarding has evolved from its roots as a hippie-rebel sport born of the alternative surf culture. The sport’s image as a non-conformist expression of dissidence has faded quite a bit in recent years. Most people now recognize and support skateboarding as a healthy avenue for promoting athleticism and perseverance. As kids build on their basic skills, the skaters learn the benefits of creativity and spontaneity.
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House Host Melekai Jenson and Program Specialist Anna Higa are alumni of the Youth Center. “I’m glad to be working somewhere that means so much to me,” says Jenson, who’s always ready with a smile, a game, painting project or a suggestion for a field trip to Makena.
The PYCC and the skatepark are a positive force in many kids’ lives. “It can give kids an escape, it teaches kids self-discipline and shows kids the reward of a new skill set that comes with hard work and dedication,” says Worcester. “It brings together kids from a broad age, social and economic demographic. Skateboarding is an individual sport but involves the support and camaraderie of others. In its purest form, skateboarding always has been and always will be more about having fun than winning which as an ethos we might all want to consider.”
The youth themselves are very involved in the park, and will help with the design of a new cement street course section that will replace older, out-of-commission wooden ramps. “We’re hoping to raise enough funds to begin the project in the next few months,” says Worcester. “This skatepark has a few unique and standout qualities, the location on the beach being the most important. Second is the park being part of the PYCC umbrella, which can make a day at the park for youth a multi-faceted experience.”
In the course of a day, a kid can hit the skatepark, shoot some footage of his or her friends, make and edit a video, borrow a body board and get in the ocean, get some airtime on the radio station, learn to cook and/or get help with homework. Or they can play a video game, shoot pool and watch a movie.
“My favorite is cooking class,” says Cade Houghton, 11. “It’s really fun. I like making deserts. And chopping stuff. It’s a really good thing to know how to do.”
Every day, under the supervision of ever-creative Ben Rachunas, members in the Pa‘ia Bay Café program design a menu, find or create recipes and prepare a meal. As the delicious scent of curry, tacos or musubi starts to waft from the café, kids traipse in from the skatepark and the beach looking for sustenance.
For dessert, Rachunas will help the kids whip up anything from Nutella pie to a batch of dark chocolate. The café charges kids $2 per meal; they can also do homework or chores around the house to earn points that go towards credits to purchase food. Donations from Flatbread Company, Mana Foods and Mama’s Fish House are essential to running the café.
This past year, youth and staff collaborated to create a cookbook, Our Hanai Plate: Cultural Waves that Helped Create the Taste of Hawai‘i Nei. The cookbook, a fundraising project, will be available soon at Longs, Costco, Walmart, Barnes & Nobles, as well as various stores on the Northshore and on the PYCC website (pyccmaui.org).
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In the winter months, when the surf is up, traffic through the center increases and sand starts spilling in the back door. Kids pull body boards and surfboards from the rack of donated equipment. Towels pile up at the door and older members drop in to say hello before hitting the waves, always remembering where the stash of surf wax is kept.
And in the old plantation house, as kids gather to hang out, the radio is often tuned to radiOpio KOPO 89.9fm, PYCC’s own radio station. Run by Program Director Laura Civitello, the station’s radio airwaves are often owned by some very creative young DJs.
Youth in the radio program can air their original compositions, sharpen speaking and reading skills by reading aloud on-air or just spend some quiet time in the studio playing their favorite songs. Members record public service announcements and voice their opinions on various topics, songs and artists.
In one radio theater piece written and performed by members, a girl who grows up in a dirty Ugg boot in Paia overcomes her warty youth to make it as a doctoral student and proud owner of a Porsche. Some youth have regularly scheduled shows, and some just jump on the air whenever the studio’s available.
“It is deeply satisfying to witness how the access to the medium of radio can play an important role in youth’s development,” says Civitello, who keeps the station flowing with an eclectic selection of music during school hours and at night. “The seldom-heard voices of youth make a lovely, lively, and often flat-out hilarious sound.”
Though there is no advertising budget, the radio has a lively word-of-mouth following and streams online (pyccmaui.org/php/radiopio.php). Besides being a local favorite, the station has received national acclaim: in 2010, Paste magazine voted radiOpio #7 on their list of The Greatest Little Stations in America.
The responsibility of operating the station gives the youth a creative outlet and enhances self-confidence in the process. All the center’s life skills programs are designed with this in mind.
In fact, much of the Youth Center activity is captured on film or photos by those PYCC members who work in the Hekili Mulitimedia Lab, managed by Peter Swanzy. Kids use the lab’s equipment to capture their friends in action at the skatepark or in the waves, or just playing around. Major confidence is given to the youth; in return, some amazing photography and a sense of creative responsibility is returned.
In the lab, the kids learn photography, editing, music, audio engineering, Photoshop, graphics and “all things media,” says Swanzy. Some youth upload their creations to YouTube or Facebook. Many collaborate on projects, make skate videos or just use the space to relax and foster their creativity. Several alumnae have developed their skills and passion in the lab and gone on to film school.
Besides developing their talents and learning new skills in the radio or the lab, kids 12 and up can also go on outings with Juliana Prater, who coordinates and runs the Malama Pono Project Venture Program with Higa and Swanzy. With Project Venture, kids can hike through the Bamboo Forest, go ziplining, jump off Black Rock and go on surf trips. This October, they are having a camp during Fall Break where participants will adventure by day and sleep in tents and have bonfires and games by night.
It’s all part of what’s going on in the old plantation house on the edge of the sand. There, hundreds of young people over the years have found a place to express themselves, be themselves and maybe even become themselves. I know I did.