A scrappy grassroots group is finding success through a program that features strength conditioning, outdoor adventure and the healing power of forgiveness.

After a rigorous CrossFit-style workout, five middle and high school students, some shirtless, all shoeless, slouched on couches in a rustic cabin on a recent Monday, watching a camp counselor draw a pie chart of a well-balanced life.


There were six categories: Spirituality. Friends and family. School. Mind. Body. Emotions. 

The counselor, Kawena Bagano, asked the group to rate how fulfilled they are in each area. Then she asked them to brainstorm actions they could take to improve upon low-ranking scores.

“That would be impossible because we were writing about the past and you can’t change the past,” an earnest 12-year-old boy blurted out.

The boy, who throughout the hour-long discussion had alternated between closing his eyes and interjecting that he’d rather be swimming, suddenly became alert as the topic turned to the prospect of changing one’s own circumstances.

Bagano didn’t miss a beat.

“You make a really good point; you can’t change the past,” said the drug prevention specialist, who was raised on Oahu in a family plagued by addiction. “But what you can do is learn from it. And you can use what you learn to change your future.”

The venue for the Keala Foundation’s early intervention camp is Kahili Mountain Park, a defunct tourist accommodation at the foot of Kahili Mountain on Kauai’s south shore. Organizers built an open-air gym on the campus to facilitate CrossFit-style workouts that are foundational to all Keala programs. (Courtesy: Keala Foundation/2023)

Ranging in age from 12 to 18, these boys struggle with substance abuse and show signs of depression, defiance or other behavioral problems. They are also participants in a new 30-day early intervention camp for wayward Kauai youth.

Launched last September by a scrappy grassroots nonprofit mostly led by former drug addicts who strive to make sobriety look cool, the Keala Foundation’s camp for boys at Kahili Mountain Park supplies campers, who attend voluntarily and agree to surrender their cell phones, with the tools to control and treat the impulse to get high or drunk. 

Campers also learn to address some of the underlying muck that so often triggers addiction: Growing up in a broken home. Being raised by intoxicated family members. Coming of age without a father figure.

Founded in 2013, the Keala Foundation is a nonprofit that provides hundreds of Kauai youth with free workouts, competitive athletic events, meals and mentorship. Propelled by an islandwide rise in drug overdose deaths, the camp is the organization’s newest and most ambitious anti-drug program, consisting of a 10-day wilderness retreat followed by 20 days of after-school activities and weekend camping trips.

On an island where government and much larger nonprofits have struggled to make inroads to tamp down on a barrage of post-pandemic mental health and addiction issues affecting children and adolescents, the camp, although expensive to pull off and small in its reach, is having a real impact in the community.

Some participants have lost dozens of pounds, nixed drugs or alcohol and replaced peers who like to get high with those who prefer to surf, hike or lift weights.

At CrossFit Kekaha, outrigger canoe paddlers join members of the CrossKit Kids program, which hosts classes four days per week. (Courtesy: Keala Foundation/2023)

Borrowing from the 12-step program popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, the camp curriculum exposes youth to positive outlets for anger, grief and sadness so that they aren’t tempted to use drugs or alcohol as a quick fix to feel good about themselves.

“These are the processes that I’ve learned and that I use for myself, and then I apply them to kids,” said Aaron Hoff, the down-home founder of the nonprofit that operates the camp.

A Kauai native who counts more than two decades of sobriety, the 48-year-old Hoff attempted suicide before he figured out how to cope with his anxiety and depression. Then he started sharing what he’d learned with friends facing similar internal battles.

“I kind of became the guy that people call,” said Hoff, who for years has used his Lawai home as an unofficial halfway house.

Hoff believes, and in some cases has proven, that he can help troubled kids even when their parents cannot.

“The majority of these kids do not listen to their parents at all,” Hoff said. “A few of them don’t go to school. They just stay at home and their parents are like, ‘There’s nothing that I can do to help this kid.’”

A gregarious surfer with scruffy facial hair and shoulders that would fill a door frame, Hoff swears by physical fitness as a way to boost mental health. 

His early intervention camp is part wilderness program, part conditioning bootcamp and part crash course in social-emotional development. 

Counselors introduce youth to new, healthy ways to access the dopamine high activated by drugs: Lifting weights. Surfing. Spearfishing on Na Pali Coast.

“I don’t like sterile environments,” Hoff said. “It doesn’t work.”

Kauai natives Aaron Hoff, left, and Billy Quereto are helping teenagers troubled by drug and alcohol use or behavioral issues through free workouts, competitive athletic events, mentorship and 30-day intervention camps that combine social-emotional learning with outdoor adventure. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Classroom-style lessons examine the cultural and social dimensions of addiction more than its chemical causes. By identifying their values, triggers and goals, campers build a sense of self. They learn about the healing power of forgiveness and the deadly risks of drugs.

There are prizes for staying abstinent. A points system provides incentives to continue participating in year-round Keala Foundation-sponsored workouts and other events. Last month a dozen kids went on an expenses-paid weeklong snowboarding trip in Utah — a reward for staying engaged in drug-free programming.

“What this does is it takes away that sense of embarrassment because we’re not treating them like a patient,” said Bagano, program coordinator for the Keala Foundation and a drug prevention specialist at several Hawaiian public charter schools. “I treat them like extended ohana. Then they open up more.” 

Aaron Hoff, Keala Foundation, Kauai, Suicide, Youth, Prevention, Mental Health, Crossfit
During the worst days of the pandemic, the Keala Foundation’s free after-school fitness programs moved online to accommodate social distancing requirements. (Courtesy: Keala Foundation/2020)

The camp is available to Kauai youth free of charge. Like all other Keala Foundation programs, it runs on donations and the dedication of adult fitness instructors and drug intervention specialists who lack clinical expertise but know by personal experience the pitfalls of growing up on an island where the economics of day-to-day living are difficult and illicit drugs are rampant. 

On Kauai, 44% of youth live in low-income households that struggle to attain basic needs, according to the 2022 Kauai Youth Report. One in three youth reported feeling sad for two weeks or more. A third of public middle schoolers and 19% of public high schoolers report they don’t have any positive relationships with adults.

“These kids are at-risk and we must find creative ways … to reach them,” said Alice Luck, executive director of the Kauai Planning and Action Alliance, which aims to address self-harm, drug and alcohol use and bullying among youth through the Kauai Resilience Project.

For island philanthropists and business owners who’ve seen Hoff reroute people from a life dictated by drugs and alcohol, the Keala Foundation has become a magnet for donations.

It costs about $50,000 to run the camp, which launched as an eight-week program before organizers scaled it back to a more manageable 30 days. Costs include meals, transportation, marketing, insurance and rental fees for the Knudsen Trust’s Kahili Mountain Park, an abandoned nature retreat that used to take reservations from tourists. Campers stay at the park for the first 10 days, then return to school and attend camp activities after school and on weekends.

Organizers aim to host four camps per year, and although they currently cater to boys there’s an effort underway to recruit more female staff to run a program for young women and girls.

While Hoff said the Keala Foundation’s programs reach hundreds of kids per year, the most recent camp in January had five participants. The inaugural camp last September also had five enrollees, but Hoff said he kicked one out due to behavioral issues.

Kauai youth pull one another out of the mud pit at the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, the nonprofit’s signature fundraising event that draws participants from around the world. (Courtesy: Keala Foundation/2023)

Mason Chock, a longtime youth advocate and former county councilman, said he’s encouraged to see a new generation of community leaders tackling adolescent drug use and mental health. But he underscored the need for programs to build out their capacities to service more than a handful of kids.

“The truth is things haven’t gotten better,” said Chock, noting that so many youth are in need of resiliency training and it would be better to improve and expand existing programs than to create new ones with such small capacity.

“(The Keala Foundation is) in the trenches and I think there’s no one else quite so well positioned,” he added. “So we have got to surround them with the right tools and resources to make sure that they are successful.”

Camp organizers say they are still figuring out how to reduce operational costs by figuring out how to provide plentiful, healthy meals for less.

“For us to get trusted with grant money from individual donors and family foundations, we know we have to evaluate costs,” Keala Foundation Executive Director Sarah Braundsdorf said.

Some behavioral indicators the organization uses to track its impact include how often the boys call the counselors on the phone, whether they show up at the nonprofit’s yearround fitness programs and whether they fall into trouble at school. A boy who participated in the September camp has since lost about 50 pounds after quitting smoking and consistently working out, according to Braunsdorf.

The Keala Foundation raises about three-quarters of a million dollars a year, according to tax filings, much of it in grants from family foundations, including Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s Chan Zuckerberg Kauai Community Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation. The organization is also powered by small and mid-sized donations from CrossFit enthusiasts, recovering addicts or people who’ve seen how the group’s fitness-forward programming has helped to turn lives around, according to Braunsdorf.

Rich Lundbeck, 49, of Utah donated $7,500 to the foundation last year and said he plans to give at least $20,000 more in 2023.

A recovering alcoholic who works in financial services, Lundbeck said he learned about the Keala Foundation from Chris Spealler, one of CrossFit’s leading ambassadors who owns the gym where Lundbeck works out in Park City. Spealler suggested Lundbeck and his wife fly to Kauai to see what the nonprofit was accomplishing at the intersection of fitness, youth empowerment and drug prevention.

In September, Lundbeck participated in the foundation’s Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, a grueling series of competitive races through the jungle that draws over a thousand participants annually and serves as the organization’s most lucrative fundraising event. Then he returned to Kauai in January to spend time with campers over the course of an early intervention program.

“In the beginning I saw kids not wanting to open up, kids wanting to antagonize one another, harass one another,” Lundbeck said. “And then three days later, five days later, 10 days later, 20 days later, these kids were blossoming and sharing their feelings about how they felt, opening up about their homes, welcoming some white guy from Utah into their little circle, calling me Uncle Rich.”

Blown away by Keala’s down-to-earth approach to teaching kids responsibility, honesty and the value of hard work, Lundbeck said he’s drawn to do more to help the organization achieve its mission.

The Keala Foundation’s core programs revolve around CrossFit gyms for youth in Kekaha, Poipu, Lihue and Anahola. The organization has dubbed these gyms “homes,” safe spaces for adolescents to build strength, foster positive relationships and enjoy a meal. They are staffed by fitness instructors who double as mentors, something many participating youth lack.

“Keala means ‘the way’ in Hawaiian,” Braunsdorf said. “It’s really about showing them the way home, and a home that’s available to them is the CrossFit gyms.”

For Lundbeck, the connection between hardcore workouts and a healthy, productive life is that both are buoyed by a strong community.

“CrossFit isn’t one of those workouts where you lift a couple dumbbells and you break a little sweat,” he said. “You’re fighting side by side with somebody to achieve something and you’re part of the whole, everybody depends on everybody.”

The palpable sense of accomplishment that comes on the heels of achieving something so difficult as 45 pull-ups can become a beacon in and out of the gym, he said.

Former Kauai County Councilman Mason Chock said a feeling of disenchantment among Kauai youth who feel like they don’t have a say in their future is partly spurred by economic pressures and a culture of secrecy and stigma about mental health matters. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2020)

A major hurdle in connecting youth to the CrossFit gyms is transportation. Some kids who want to participate don’t have an adult at the ready to drop them off after school and pick them up at night.

Similarly, parental buy-in is key component to help ensure that the progress campers make at camp sticks once they return home. 

A licensed marriage and family therapist meets with each camper and his guardians, both individually and separately. Family members are also invited to weekly sessions with an addiction counselor to better understand the signs of drug and alcohol dependency.

But some parents don’t show up.

“They could be doing all this great work to stop vaping or stop smoking weed, but then if they go home and none of that work is seen or celebrated or supported, then what?” Braunsdorf said.

The county built the $7 facility with taxpayer dollars n 2019. But its doors never opened for the center's intended purpose.
A $7 million adolescent treatment facility was constructed with taxpayer money in 2019 but its doors have never opened to help the drug-addicted youth it was intended to serve. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

The camp is not designed for youth in acute crisis. It’s to redirect youth at risk of sliding into a life of addiction. 

“What we do, it’s not clinical,” said Billy Quereto, an ex-addict who helped establish the organization’s CrossFit gym in Anahola. “It’s not sitting with a psychologist all day long. We take them farming, show them how to plant things and how to make a meal. And while we’re doing that, we hide all the drug prevention tools so that they almost don’t realize that they’re getting it.”

Adolescents who’ve developed serious problems with addiction are better suited for intensive treatment. But Kauai has no inpatient rehab programs. People grappling with drug dependency must board an airplane to access residential care on Oahu or the mainland.

“There really aren’t many options — not that people can afford,” said Bagano, 36. “For a lot of kids on Kauai, this is it. But it’s really not a substitute for clinical treatment.”

Island leaders hatched a plan to fill the gap in services for drug-addicted youth in 2003 by building an adolescent treatment facility. The eight-bedroom building was constructed with $7 million in taxpayer funds in 2019. But the facility never opened to help the drug-dependent youth it was built to serve.

While it’s uncertain exactly how many youth on Kauai might require inpatient drug treatment, former Kauai public schools superintendent William Arakaki said the DOE has identified approximately 20 to 25 students on the island who may need this level of support.

But for youth showing early warning signs of going down the wrong path, the Keala Foundation’s camp is a free resource that can help them make an about-face.

“The key is that they want to be here,” Quereto said. ”Some kids say it’s the best day of their life being here at camp.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation and the Cooke Foundation.

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