When Susun White took over as executive director of the Paia Youth & Cultural Center, it was bare bones.
The clubhouse had recently been gutted by a fire, vagrants lurked around the parking lot and there were just 27 members. "We started out with virtually nothing," she recalls.
Member Samson Campbell (left), 10, plays cards with Noah Moscarillo, 9, at the Paia Youth & Cultural Center on Saturday. “I come at least twice a week,” Noah said. “Sometimes every day.”
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Paia Youth & Cultural Center Executive Director Susun White holds Saydee-Lynn Mau, 2, while visiting with Saydee-Lynn’s mom, former PYCC member Sanamy Andres Mau. “I came here a long time ago,” Andres Mau said. “It wasn’t like this. It’s blossomed.”
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Members, families and supporters of the Paia Youth & Cultural Center gather Saturday to celebrate the center’s 20th anniversary.
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Now, PYCC is overflowing with more than 500 members, a bright and bustling clubhouse, expanded skate park, and programs that include a cafe, arts, sports, games, media lab and a fully functional low-power radio station run entirely by kids.
"The youth center today is the best it's ever been," she said. "We have outgrown our doors."
PYCC marked its 20th anniversary with a community celebration on Saturday at its beachfront clubhouse on about an acre leased from A&B Properties at Paia Bay.
PYCC at a glance
Membership: Open to ages 9 to 21
Location: Paia Bay Beach Park
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; closed Sunday and Monday.
More Information: www.pyccmaui.org
White, who has helmed the youth center since 1994, said that her original dream was to create an environment where kids would have lots of opportunities to have fun and participate in activities, but could set their own pace.
"My vision was to have a place where kids could come and not feel programmed," she said.
She and her staff structured the center so that youngsters could come and go depending on their interest. While some kids drift through the back doors to hit the beach, others play pingpong in the sunken "drop-in room." The artistically inclined might craft a project in the art area, while another group heads to the climate-controlled media lab to work on video production or website design.
"We can facilitate just about anything a kid wants to do," said Laura Civitello, who oversees PYCC's low-power radio station, RadiOpio.
The station, KOPO-LP, has broadcast at 88.9 on the FM dial for six years, and, White said, it was the first radio station in the country run entirely for and by teens and preteens. Youth center members select the music, serve as disc jockeys and engineer the broadcasts by themselves. White said that the program often attracts some of the more reserved and quiet youngsters, who come out of their shells as soon as they get on the air.
"It's just transformational for some of them," she said.
Other popular programs include the Paia Bay Cafe, the clubhouse's certified kitchen where youths get cooking lessons and then work together to prepare and serve a meal to the youth center members and their families every day.
The center's skate park, "StoneWave," is open to the public, and youth center members can participate in a job training program called Skate-Ops, where they can earn money for helping with monitoring and maintenance of the facility.
PYCC also offers "adventure based" field trips twice weekly, said Olivia Alves, who heads the excursion program. Outings include ocean and mountain activities, "all outdoor stuff," and are aimed at developing leadership skills, positive group dynamics and team-building. Recent trips included snorkeling at Honolua Bay, and a service trip to the Pu'u Kukui Watershed Preserve that included an overnight stay in a mountain cabin.
Getting kids outdoors and having fun is one of the goals of the PYCC, White said. While the clubhouse has an Internet lab, members are limited to one hour of online time per day. "That's the biggest challenge with youth these days," she said. "They're so plugged in."
Brian McCafferty, who founded the youth center in 1993 and now runs the nonprofit Teens on Call, says PYCC has come a long way in the last 20 years. Paia was different back then, he notes, and it often wasn't a friendly place. There wasn't much for kids to do after school, and some of them were getting into trouble. So when the house fronting Paia Bay was vacated after a fire, he jumped at the chance to turn it into a youth center.
Getting support from landowner A&B, and with help from Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. workers who rewired the building pro bono, McCafferty enlisted a crew of some of the town's toughest youths to gut and repair the building.
"They loved it," he said. "We'd work a couple of hours, have lunch, work a couple more hours, then go jump in the ocean."
PYCC has carried that spirit into 2013, with much of the youth center still run and maintained with help from its members. The group also recently set out to improve the area surrounding the clubhouse, with staff and members volunteering to beautify and maintain Paia Bay Beach Park, spruce up the public restrooms and protect the shoreline with a dune restoration project. White says the work has improved safety in the area.
"It's made a difference," she said. "The more you take care of it, the more people respect it."
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.