Keith Larson is one of those guys who directs traffic at road construction sites. He’s studying sociology and political science at a community college, and is taking a semester off to plan his wedding.
Sounds pretty normal, right? But what makes all this extraordinary is where he’s come from.
Two years ago, he says, “I was homeless on the beach at Waianae, drinking as much as I can and doing drugs. We stole. We did harm. We made things dirty.”
Then he met Iopa Maunakea.
Maunakea’s probably best known to the world as the musician “Bruddah Kuz.” But lately, he’s been spending almost all his time with the “Men of Paa,” a program he started to help addicts get straight through community service and reconnection to Hawaiian values.
The Men of Paa claim about a 75 percent success rate in keeping those who join the group drug and alcohol free. About half of the men come from the community, says Maunakea; the other half come from the prison system. The group is currently active only on the Big Island, but is in the process of organizing a second chapter in Waianae.
“When I found Keith in Waianae, Keith literally had needles in his arms,” Maunakea recalls. “I said, ‘Keith, are you ready for change?’”
Larson said he was. So Maunakea brought him to the Big Island and found him a place in one of the two group homes that the organization runs for recovering addicts.
“When I was doing my thing, getting high and drinking, I caused a lot of harm in any community I was in,” says Larson. “Doing the service kind of helped me make up for that. I feel human again.”
Maunakea had had his own problems with drugs. But by 2004, he was helping other recovering addicts in a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
He started inviting the men he was working with in the group to help him set up concerts and clean up afterward. The simple camaraderie of the work, he noticed, was helping, giving the men a sense of purpose. The group began helping with other events for churches and nonprofits.
Paa, in Hawaiian means many things, including “solid,” “unmovable” and “steadfast.” Maunakea chose it because it was an acronym for “Positive Action Alliance.”
And positive action lies at the heart of the transformation that Maunakea calls the “hookanaka process.” Addicts often feel bad about themselves for various reasons, so they self-medicate to feel better. Serving the community helps addicts to feel better about themselves.
Men of Paa, Maunakea says, is about “people helping people to help people.”
The group has become a fixture in Hilo and Puna, serving at athletic events, community fundraisers, political rallies and church events, where they park cars, secure parking lots, set up chairs and stages, clean up, even provide lomilomi hand and foot massages. At a big imu behind one of the group’s transition homes, they smoke pigs and turkeys for a local church’s “feed the homeless” program. At a rally opposing violence against women, they showed their solidarity by wearing muumuus.
When the group does service projects, Maunakea believes, it helps on multiple levels. It helps the men themselves, by making them feel useful. It helps them develop work habits and skills that they can take to jobs (another big emphasis with the group is helping them find employment.) It helps the community groups serve the community. And it helps to give the community a different view of recovering addicts.
One of the group’s fans is Rev. Daniel DeLuz Jr., of Hilo’s Glad Tidings Church. When his congregation needed to move to a new building, he recalls, eight to 10 Men of Paa answered the call, loading and unloading trucks literally from dawn till dusk.
“There’s no way we could have moved on time without their help. They help the community, and the community appreciates them,” says DeLuz.
Maunakea founded his own nonprofit, Kanaka O Puna, to serve as an umbrella for the group’s activities. In addition to the event services, he’s planning to expand into other areas where the men could train for jobs, including lawn services and agriculture. They plan to clear a small plot of land in lower Puna that’s been in the Maunakea family since his childhood, and practice farming there.
Take Skyler Deleon, who came to the Men of Paa’s care after qualifying for parole from Kulani prison.
“He’s interested in photography, so we hooked him up with a photographer who gave him some equipment,” says Maunakea.
Now Deleon’s planning to start college next semester, majoring in digital arts and photography. And he hopes to help photograph teams and events next football season.
Men of all races and ethnicities are welcome in the group, but the Men of Paa emphasizes reconnecting with traditional Hawaiian values, partly because of an outsized need. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs estimates that those of Hawaiian ancestry comprise only about 24 percent of Hawaii’s population — but 39 percent of its prison population.
The group is currently working a traditional loi, or taro patch, in Waipio Valley.
Maunakea says the men will learn to make poi boards and pounding stones, harvest taro and pound their own poi.
“That is like the beginning of our beginnings. We lost connection to culture, to family, to aina, everything, because we were so busy trying to get drugs and alcohol, sex and rock ’n’ roll.”
Kapoli Maunakea is Iopa’s brother and one of his early converts, who now mentors the younger men in the group.
“In practicing our culture, we also practice values,” he says. “It all stems from our ohana, our kupuna. I find myself with my dad in me, my grandmother in me, my grandfather in me, and my brother as well. I never met my grandfather, but I’m sure he’s in me, too.”