Wahiawā in Central O‘ahu is home to about 18 thousand people, plus over 15 thousand soldiers at Schofield Barracks. Over the last ten years, a change has come over a central section of Wahiawā, where bars and porn shops ruled the block. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, a surfing nonprofit has brought a fresh wave into town.
Surfing the Nations, STN, is a non profit devoted to benefitting communities through selfless service and action sports since 1997. The youth surf programs they started with branched into other countries, like, improbably, Bangladesh and North Korea, and they expanded to feeding kids, and their families too. Ten years ago, STN, bought their first building in the center of Wahiawā.
“Everybody that’s from his area can remember their parents telling them, don’t look on that side of the street. Nobody would walk down here.”
That’s Cindy Bauer, co-founder and Executive Director of Surfing the Nations, --you know the block in Wahiawā she’s talking about.
Bauer: We closed down the second largest porn shop on island, which means the second largest porn store in the state. We closed down the Texas Bar, with its exotic dancers. This was a liquor store, that we’re standing in right now, that had porn and porn toys.
She’s leading us around the back where Surfing the Nations (STN) owns a fifteen unit apartment building and office/meeting spaces with parking behind its six new storefronts. The Vintage Shop, Surfers Coffee, Niu Women’s Boutique, Aloha Sub of Wahiawā, are all thriving along Kamehameha highway where the Top Hat and Texas Bars used to dominate the block. Remember the 88 Market sign? Right there.
Bauer: Here’s the Outreach and Training Center. This used to be an eight bedroom brothel. And here is where we run the programs. The program you see going on right now is the Leadership program, that’s also our music room with a recording studio. This is our graphics office and also our pro bono office.
STN runs Surfers Coffee and The Vintage, a curated secondhand store. There’s also a food pantry here, and public shower. Friends of Hawai‘i Charities, the Sony Open, is a key sponsor for STN youth programs that serve 50-100 Wahiawā kids.
Bauer: Our biggest challenge is still just having the young people feel like their life is worth living. I’d love to see drugs gone, I’d love to see alcohol gone, but I think the biggest thing is just beinga community that you just love the good bad and the tough.
Bauer: We just think people are worth it, even the ones that seem to a lot of people’s eye not worth it, we’ve seen them, their lives change, they grab hold. If we only make it with one, it’s been worth it.
Homelessness is up, so they put in extra outlets to help people charge their phones, and just the week I visited, one familiar customer crashed their front window.
Bauer: That was a big Whoa! He was absolutely going Richter. And we knew when he got arrested he’d only be in a couple of days because they don’t seem dangerous enough not to be on the streets, but he’s already back. I’ve seen him.
Bauer: He likes Wahiawā. We just love him. I know a lot of people fear the homeless, but most of the people we feed, probably 98% are the working poor, that means somebody in their family is working. If you don’t provide them food when they’re working this hard, then you go to stealing, which then affects their character, which then just pulls them down.
Bauer: Whereas if we can give them food, and we can keep them living in a house and their family together and the lights turned on, I want to keep giving them food. They’re trying their hardest and some people, their ability to earn is topped, and we need those people as much as we need those people at the top.
Bauer: Do some people take more than they need? For sure, but you’re working with people with food insecurity so they don’t have the same logic they look at it with.
Bauer says they fundraised for years while running youth and food distribution programs in Kalihi valley. In 2008, after they lost their Kalihi site, they used the funds bought the 15 unit apartment building that had the Texas Bar in the front. They paid it off in two years, and used the collateral to purchase more buildings on the same strip.
STN is a humanitarian organization, says Bauer, and about 98% of workers there are Christian believers, but there is no proselytizing. She says the apartment they purchased allows them to provide housing for most workers, in exchange for their labor. STN co-founder Tom Bauer says, once you take care of a young person's basic need for shelter, they've got a lot of good energy to put toward community building. Most of Surfers Coffee's workers are unpaid, and in the spirit of selfles service, even the paid workers give up their tips toward STN projects. That's how a mirror wall for the dance room got funded. A church group from the continent came to town to help renovate at one point, and someone from South Carolina recently donated gymnastics equipment.
Since starting food giveaways in Kalihi in 1998, STN’s Feeding the Hungry program has grown to serving over 600 families every week. They distribute 25-30,000 pounds of food from Hawaii Foodbank and Aloha Harvest every week through two outlets: in Kalihi under the freeway at the Samoan church, and at the STN offices in Wahiawā.
Surfing The Nations now has surf and action sports programs in five countries, and they’ve been asked back to North Korea. Meanwhile, they’ll be celebrating ten good years in Wahiawā this weekend with the ‘Āina Art Festival---art, live music, food and community at Surfers Coffee.