Geno McCarthy doesn’t want to be portrayed as a hero.
But as McCarthy and I sit at the pavilions down at Ho‘okipa on Sunday morning talking about “Fight for the Kids”–a charity Mixed Martial Arts event he is organizing to benefit the Neighborhood Place of Wailuku–I can’t help but think that, at least to the families that depend on the organization, he won’t have much say in the matter.
As yet, no big names have signed on, though McCarthy wants the fight to take place at War Memorial Stadium. Some might see irony in the idea that a big MMA fight will help children and families, but for McCarthy, doing exactly that is perfectly in character.
I haven’t been down to Ho‘okipa in nearly a decade and am surprised by the many familiar faces that stop in to slap McCarthy on the shoulder and peck me on the cheek as they walk past–especially on such a rainy, windy and choppy day as this. The surf scene was never one I’d been comfortable in, but McCarthy is a natural, apparently not only knowing every local surfer that frequents the area, but also liked and respected by them as well.
McCarthy is a big dude, skin weathered from years in the sun and, as he freely admits, nights behind a bottle. He has shaggy, salt-water bleached hair, numerous tattoos, impressive shoulders and vibrant blue eyes that I don’t doubt for a second have broken more than a few female hearts. He’s what I’d call “local haole,” but I’m surprised when he says he first moved to the Islands as a young adult to pursue the dream of an “endless summer.”
McCarthy is also more multi-layered than I expected, telling me about his past and how he found hope through the church and Christianity while simultaneously voicing anger, pain and love of fighting. McCarthy has always been a fighter–a scrapper really—but only recently became involved with the organized discipline of Mixed Martial Arts.
At 21 he was arrested after head-butting a bouncer and fighting six cops. “It was my 21st birthday and I remember sitting in jail with $24,ooo bail on my head remembering what my grandmother had told me when I was a kid and she caught me stealing liquor out of her cabinet,” he said. “She told me I had a choice. Sitting there, it sunk in pretty hard and I quit drinking for six years.”
He stopped drinking cold turkey, seemingly an impossible feat–especially after he told me that he started drinking and doing drugs when he was nine.
“I was really confused and had no guidance,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t have a father figure and the one that I did have when I was younger got all weird.” By weird, McCarthy is referring to the fact that he was molested numerous times by his mother’s boyfriend, beginning when he was just four years old.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” he said. “It wasn’t me. I want kids to know that are out there, maybe their parents are beating them or someone’s touching them funny that they should have no shame. They can talk about it and if people want to say something, well, you know what they say, ‘Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.”
As a dad to two young girls–Kayla, age eight, and Kailee, age nine–McCarthy wants to be the father that he didn’t have. “Becoming a father gave me a sense of responsibility,” he said. “I have two individuals that need my love and support. I also have a lot of respect for their mom Terina and all that she does for my kids. She’s an awesome mom.”
McCarthy says fighting and violence are a part of him. He believes it to be primal. “I love to fight, but now I know that it’s better to fight in the ring than in a bar,” he said. “Being a haole, people want to fight me. It happens. Now I’m like, ‘You wanna fight? Okay, here’s my card.’”
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter and Maui boy Kendall Grove, who trained with McCarthy in Big Bear, California in September 2006, had nothing but praise for McCarthy. “Geno’s got awesome heart, trains hard,” he said. “He’s a cool haole bradduh that knows the local ways. He’s a very spiritual person, loves Jesus Christ. He got me all fired up.”
McCarthy attributes his desire to help others to the love shown to him through Pastor Dale Kreps of Pukalani Church of the Nazarene. “Pastor Dale gave me time and love that my own father didn’t, and it made me stop and say, ‘Who is this guy?’” McCarthy told me. In turn, McCarthy wants to give back to the community and specifically help kids.
“It sounds kooky,” he said. “But I was working and I just got the message that I was supposed to give my money to the kids. And then I realized that I want to give even more than I have, so I thought to organize a fight where all of the proceeds would be given to someplace that does that.”
“Fight for the Kids” was born. The first organization that that McCarthy contacted turned him down flat. “I guess cause it’s money coming from a violent sport? I don’t know,” he said, “But they wouldn’t touch it. Then I called Neighborhood Place and talked to [Founder/Executive Director] Venus [Rosete-Hill] and she was stoked on it.”
Happy Valley in Wailuku has long had a reputation for being one of the least happy places on the island. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t feel this. I spent time there–my dad had friends that lived in the area and Takamiya Market was a place my mom liked to shop because of the good prices and variety of food not found in the regular supermarket.
But as I grew older, Happy Valley’s public housing, kids in the street and reputation for alcohol and drugs began to grow on me. When I discovered that The Neighborhood Place of Wailuku, a non-profit organization dedicated “to build strong roots in the and in the community by promoting a safe and nurturing environment for children and families” was located in the heart of Happy Valley, I thought, “The area could use an organization developed to help families, but why in the hell would someone choose to set up shop in an area with such a bad rap?”
On a recent Monday afternoon I made the short trip from my Market Street office down to The Neighborhood Place. Finding it was tricky—it’s located in an old two-story plantation-style house just off to the side of Takamiya.
As soon as I stepped inside, Rosete-Hill greeted me with a hug. She introduced me to staff members that knew who I was by sight without ever formally meeting me before.
“I know your father, uncle, auntie,” Duke Sevilla, program coordinator, told me. “But you look like your mom. I worked with her at the jail.”
Close, I told him. That was my mom’s sister that you worked with. Of course, it was 25 years ago that they must have worked together, but it felt good to be connected through childhood acquaintances and co-workers on a very small island.
Rosete-Hill was born and raised on Maui. She began The Neighborhood Place four years ago. Today the organization helps more than 500 families.
“What makes us different from some other organizations is that we are very culturally sensitive,” she told me while we sat in her warm and comforting office. “We’re different here. For example, there’s some great Mainland models for the work we do, but often they don’t work with local families. We’re a different culture. We live a different way. So we try to draw upon our innate local wisdom so that people can relate. We believe that it’s a person’s belief system that drives a person’s behavior. So we look at what they believe to be true about themselves and their family and work to build their confidence.”
The Neighborhood Place uses traditional Hawaiian and multicultural values. Their guiding principles are both simple and powerful: ‘O ke aloha ke pili mai, (“Love is the thing that binds us”) and ‘O ke kuamo‘o ke kua‘e (“It is our genealogy that keeps us upright”).
Rosete-Hill also noticeably resisted using the now-clichéd term “at-risk youth.”
“We say ‘at-promise’ youth and families,” she said. “Every family at one time or another needs help. We’re not going to be judgmental. We want to help that family before an incident occurs and keep the family together.”
According to Rosete-Hill, 80 percent of the families they have worked with are walk-ins who hear about the organization through word-of-mouth. “We don’t have a certain stigma attached to us,” she said. “You could come in here for any reason, kids, abuse, drugs. No one would know. We deal with everything.”
The placement of The Neighborhood Place in the heart of Happy Valley was strategic. “Here we are in the middle of public housing,” Rosete-Hill said. “And not once have we been broken into or robbed. People started asking me if I was a product of public housing. I didn’t even know. I had to ask my dad and come to find out, I guess I was. As a kid, you don’t know. Where you live is just a shell, there’s no reason that these kids here can’t have fun, healthy lifestyles. It’s not where you live but how you feel about yourself. One family at a time, we want to restore the cultural richness in this area.”
Shane Kealoha, who participated in Kamalama–a parenting class put on by The Neighborhood Place—was enthusiastic about the organization. “I went in looking for a better me and found a better us,” he said.
As for McCarthy, he hopes to have the support for “Fight for the Kids” by August or September. Many individuals and businesses in the Mixed Martial Arts community and beyond have offered to donate their time or services—HGA, Da Hui, Sanuk, Maui Jiu Jitsu, Kazuma, Wailuku Boxing Club, Da Kine and Papaya Naturay.
“It would be so great if I could hand Venus a check for 20 or 30 grand,” McCarthy said, smiling. “I just want to help those kids.”
For more info or to participate in “Fight for the Kids” please visit www.fightforthekids.org or email McCarthy at Irishskankin@hotmail.com. For more information on The Neighborhood Place of Wailuku call 986-0700. MTW