Youth Challenge Academy funds pass budget muster

When the state Senate Ways and Means Committee passed the House’s version of a $31.36 billion operating budget for the next two fiscal years starting July 1, funding was included for the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy in Hilo, which had been on the chopping block early in the legislative session.

The vote on House Bill 835 House Draft 2 itself was a unanimous 11-0, with the budget bill, House Bill 200 House Draft 1, also passing Ways and Means later in the day.

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Among the unanimous votes were Big Island Sens. Lorraine Inouye, a Hilo Democrat, and Dru Kanuha, a Kona Democrat.

The budget restores more than $600,000 in general funds and $2.3 million in federal funds to the program and retains more than 40 full-time positions that would otherwise have been cut. The state received $1.6 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for coronavirus relief to help shore up the budget.

“We are grateful for the federal infusion of $1.6 billion, which enabled the Senate to meet the tremendous need for resources … ,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, an Oahu Democrat and the committee chair.

The bill to restore Youth Challenge funding was introduced in January by Rep. Greggor Ilagan, a freshman Democrat from Puna, after Gov. David Ige said the state couldn’t afford to fund the Hilo campus of the program because of the budgetary crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Closing the Youth Challenge Academy in Hilo would significantly impact at-risk youth on the Big Island,” said Rep. Chris Todd, who represents the Hilo district where the Youth Challenge Academy is situated.

The Youth Challenge Academy is a community-based program that trains, educates and mentors young people under military-like conditions. The goal of the program is to prepare at-risk students with the life skills, discipline and guidance to succeed as productive members of society.

“I’d like to thank the chairs who heard this measure and the Hawaii Island delegation for working alongside Rep. Todd and me to advocate for this important program,” said Ilagan.

There were 17 pages of testimony submitted prior to Thursday’s hearing, all in favor of the measure’s passage.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen called continued funding for the program “necessary,” testifying that the Youth Challenge Academy “has been recognized as one of the nation’s most effective and cost-efficient programs for targeting youth who are at the greatest risk for substance abuse, teen pregnancy, delinquency and criminal activity.”

“Youth Challenge performs tens of thousands of volunteer work hours to benefit communities around the island, providing youth the opportunity to learn the value of public service and become stewards of their community,” Waltjen said. “… Hundreds of youth who did not succeed in traditional forms of education succeeded with the help of Youth Challenge.”

Judge Christine Kuriyama, senior judge and deputy chief judge of the Family Court of the 1st Circuit on Oahu, called Youth Challenge “a valuable partner of the Family Court across all islands.”

“It provides the necessary services to divert ‘at promise’ youth from the juvenile justice system and also serves as a much needed alternative to detention,” Kuriyama wrote.

Other organizations submitting testimony include Family Tree Project LLP and Ho‘ola Na Pua, and there was testimony from numerous individuals.

A Maui mother testified that her son “came back a changed young man, to say the least” after his experience in the Hilo program in 2017.

“He was healthier in mind, body and spirit,” the woman wrote. “He had found himself. He now had a ‘sense of purpose.’ He obtained his high school diploma … which was the main goal for him.”

The woman said her son has since enlisted in the Marines.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not see dozens of hardcore addicts trying to get clean,” testified Hilo physician Dr. Frederick Nitta. “The Youth Challenge in Hilo is just a small part of successfully trying to redirect our youth. It works.”

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The budget now goes to the floor of the Senate for its final vote there

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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