By Léo Azambuja
Most boys and girls start puberty at around 11 years old. At that age, pre-teens develop better decision-making skills, start questioning authority and pushing back their parents’ affection. They form strong bonds with friends and usually try to ascertain their identity through fashion statements, hobbies or sports. It’s all normal.
But for Westside local boy Willis Kauakahi, it was also the age when he started using crystal methamphetamine.
“I had some issues, by 11 or 12, drugs got a hold of my life. I was in and out of boys homes, just a wreck,” Kauakahi said. “Because of my selfishness and how I grew up, I just knew how to cause havoc.”
By the time he turned 18 years old, Kauakahi would spend the next eight years of his life in jail — on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu and Arizona. He got out of jail at 26 years old, and two years later, his girlfriend gave birth to their babygirl. But Kauakahi was still fighting his demons.
“I was at my lowest point. I just had enough, I knew there was more to life,” Kauakahi said. When he went to the food pantry at the Westside Christian Center in Kekaha to get food for his family, he met pastor Darryl Kua, and it changed his life forever.
Kua had been partnering with the nonprofit Teen Challenge of the Hawaiian Islands since 2006 to help those struggling with substance abuse. Kauakahi said Kua is not a drug addict, and doesn’t know anything about drugs, but he knows Teen Challenge helps people who are struggling with addiction, and he knows the drug problem on Kaua‘i’s Westside is serious.
“His heart was open. I reached out to him and he led me to Teen Challenge,” Kauakahi said of Kua. “Teen Challenge taught me to just surrender and give it all to God. Today, I’m not where I used to be because I made the choice to seek the Lord.”
Teen Challenge was founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1958 to help young adults associated with gangs and struggling with drug addiction, according to Ron Takayama, outreach coordinator for Teen Challenge on Kaua‘i. Today, Teen Challenge’s presence is in 90 countries. In the United States, the organization has 261 centers, with five of them in the Hawaiian Islands.
Takayama came from the Big Island two years ago to establish a permanent outreach center on Kaua‘i’s Westside. Since then, the center has housed four Teen Challenge graduates. Since Kua started the partnership between Teen Challenge and the Westside Christian Center 13 years ago, 18 people were sent from Kaua‘i to the treatment center on the Big Island.
“The majority of them did well, and there are a few that didn’t not do well, because everything hinges on the student himself, how compliant he is or how willing he is to break some of the vices and make some changes,” Kua said.
Takayama himself went through the program a couple times. A drug user since he was 15 years old, his life hit a wall in his mid-20s, after a short stint in jail. Facing additional time because of multiple parole violations, and also failing his own will to become “straight as an arrow,” Takayama sought Teen Challenge.
Takayama completed the program, but just like Kauakahi, he dropped out during his first attempt, and later went back to it. Kauakahi said when he decided to get back on track, there was never judgment about him dropping out.
“I went there the first time, then I left,” Kauakahi said. “When I went back the second time, they never rubbed on my face, they always told me they love me and just pointed me toward the Lord, that’s what I like a lot about Teen Challenge.”
During his darkest times, he said, he couldn’t have gotten any deeper, and if it weren’t for Teen Challenge, he would probably be dead. Kauakahi is now 31 years old, married with the woman who stood by his side through it all, and a father of four children.
Kua said there is no judgment on Teen Challenge’s part, because they know life is a struggle. Some guys go through the program several times before it actually kicks in, he said, because sometimes people get out and go right back to their circle of friends, and right back to drugs.
“Teen Challenge realizes this is something that happens frequently, so there’s no judgment on their part,” Kua said.
Still, overall, the program’s success rate is high, according to Takayama, who said four years after graduation, 85 percent of graduates are still sober.
One of those success stories happened in the heart of Lihu‘e. in July 2015, Mary Bryan was in her mid-60s, and had been living in the streets of Lihu‘e for more than four years. She would sleep in bathrooms, alleys, parks, anywhere she could. Oftentimes, cops would wake her up in the middle of the night to tell her to move. She was a drug addict with decades of substance abuse; she had gone from alcohol to pot, then started using cocaine and finally crystal methamphetamine.
When Bryan’s son learned about Teen Challenge, he connected his mom with the program. Within days, he got Bryan a ticket to the Big Island to start the year-long journey.
“I though it was going to be like other programs I tried to go to. It wasn’t. We never talked about drugs and we never told our story over and over,” said Bryan, adding that each day they would study a different subject and learn about the Bible “I owe them my life, because they really saved it.”
After completing the program, Bryan returned to Kaua‘i, and has since kept her promise to God to never go back to her former life of drugs and substance abuse. She also forgave all those who were mean to her during her years as a drug user and homeless. She says she doesn’t consider herself sober, but rather, having a new life with God in it.
“It was a hard journey in the beginning but I did it all by myself, through the Church and through the people that had reached out to me, because I had nothing, all I had was the clothes on my back and that was it,” she said.
Today, Bryan lives in a brand new apartment in Lihu‘e, and helps Teen Challenge in their fundraising efforts whenever she can. She also was there for her son — the same son who took her to Teen Challenge — two months ago when he called her at 4 a.m. to tell her he didn’t think he was going to make it through the night. Bryan had been there before, in the “darkness,” so she knew exactly what to do. She told her son to come over, and from there she sent him to Teen Challenge. Within two weeks, he was back as a new man. He now holds two jobs, got his own place and is doing “really good,” she said.
Kua said the partnership between Teen Challenge and the Westside Christian Center started with the passion to reach those struggling with drugs. The idea was to reach them, teach them and train them to make better choices and to help them figure out what causes them to run to drugs, and find a better way to deal with that, “which is turn to God because God is ultimately the only answer to drug addiction.”
Kua’s church contacted the directors of Teen Challenge Hawai‘i, and invited them to do an outreach on Kaua‘i. From there, the idea blossomed to become an annual event. Even now that Teen Challenge has established a permanent outreach center on Kaua‘i, the regional directors still come to the island each year. And because Kua’s church is Teen Challenge’s biggest supporter on Kaua‘i, his involvement with the organization increased so much that he was invited to be part of the board of directors for Teen Challenge Hawai‘i.
To get into the year-long program at Teen Challenge, there is a $100 application fee. But a lot of times, when people are finally ready to get help, Takayama said, they are homeless, living in the bushes or on the beach, and have nothing. So Takayama said it’s common for the fee to be waived.
“That’s why Teen Challenge is such a blessing, because it’s still open and available for those who burned all their bridges, have no resources, and are just willing to reach out and get help,” Takayama said.
Kua said even for those who got through rehab, there are two things that need to happen immediately to increase their chances of success. They need to find a job and a place to live, otherwise they may go right back to their circle of friends, and back into the vicious cycle. So the church is partnering with different companies and organizations to find jobs for the graduates and set them up with goals and life skills.
Kua’s wife, Elizabeth Kua, said she found out a little over a year ago that Subway in Waimea was for sale. So the Westside Christian Center formed a separate for-profit organization, and after a six-month process, it took ownership of the business.
“The idea is to give those guys a job when they come home, and hopefully from there they can get a better job,” she said.
Teen Challenge has five centers in the state: the women’s home and the men’s induction center on the Big Island, the men’s second phase center on O‘ahu, the outreach center on Kaua‘i, and a Maui outreach center that has recently opened.
Though the name of the organization is Teen Challenge, mostly anyone over the age of 18 is eligible. Takayama said there are people in their 70s who have gone through the program. The program does not take those who are taking mental health medication or have been diagnosed with mental disorders. In those cases, they are referred to proper agencies or organizations. “We want them to be in the right place,” Takayama said.
For men who want to get into the program, they go first to the Big Island, and stay there from three to six months. After the induction, the men go to O‘ahu to finish the remainder of the year. Women do the whole year-long program on the Big Island. After the program finishes, graduates can choose to do a six-month internship on the Big Island, O‘ahu or Kaua‘i. Takayama said if people don’t have money for the airfare, Teen Challenge will pay for it.
“God calls them out of the darkness and here we are to help them,” said Takayama, adding they don’t have to worry about food or shelter; everything is provided. “They just got to build their relationship with Christ. That’s what makes the difference, that’s where the healing comes from, and that’s where they get their strength to stay clean and find a purpose in their life, because there’s so much more than that life (of drugs).”
Reach Teen Challenge on Kaua‘i through Takayama at (808) 987-1144 or (808) 212-1490. Visit www.teenchallenge.com for more information.