Story – Keala Foundation

The Keala Foundation was created in 2013 by Aaron Hoff, pictured above with Mayor Kawakami during a prior Ultimate Hawaii Trail Run event.  Aaron grew up on Kauai and personally knows the challenges of drug and alcohol abuse.  He overcame addiction himself at the young age of 24.  As he shifted his life in a positive direction, he wanted to give back to the community.  He wanted to help others who were going down the wrong path and to support kids through their formative years by providing a better choice, a safe place, and strong positive relationships to keep them on track.

A core belief of the Keala Foundation is that “Every child deserves to grow up in a healthy environment, to belong, and to know they are loved.  We are a community that stands for health and empowers the people of Hawaii to thrive.”

Fitness is part of what saved Aaron’s life, so he based the Keala Foundation on fitness and exercise.   But as Sarah Braunsdorf explained, “the gym and CrossFit program is a catalyst to get kids into a positive environment.”  Sarah recently joined the Keala Foundation.  Even the pandemic couldn’t stop her from moving here and getting involved in a permanent way.  Sarah went on to explain that bringing kids into the gym has so many positives.  Working out is a good release for their energy.  It helps them gain confidence in their growing bodies.  But beyond the benefits of physical fitness, the Keala Foundation gyms are a safe place to be.  When children are there, they are surrounded by coaches and other athletes who are modeling good behavior,   they are learning about commitment, setting goals, overcoming obstacles, etc.  They are learning about hard work, what it feels like, and seeing the results of their efforts.  And, most importantly, while they are there, they aren’t engaging in negative behaviors or going down a bad path.

One of the goals of the Keala Foundation was to remove the barrier to entry so that any child could participate.  All of the Keala Foundation programs are free for kids.  They also provide free transportation.  As the program evolved, they realized that kids are also hungry, especially after working out, so they started buying food for the kids.  This started with buying rotisserie chicken, fruits, and adding some spinach.  That effort evolved into where they are now.  A food prep company, Ice Age Meals, generously donates to the program and provides trays of food to feed the children.  Before COVID, the team was also working on a commercial kitchen where they could prep food here on island.

One of their beliefs is that “the solution to substance abuse begins with healthy relationships.  Through community we can equip people with the tools to be successful and overcome any challenge.  Whether our focus is prevention or rehabilitation, our tactics are the same; create community, provide resources and maintain relationships.”  The Keala Foundation now has three locations on island – Poipu, Kekaha and Anahola.  Before COVID-19, they were serving about 400-500 kids in these three locations.  They realize that each community is unique and they aim to serve what each community needs.  They manage to do this all with a small staff of committed individuals and many volunteers.

How did they shift due to COVID-19?

When the pandemic started months ago, the Keala Foundation followed the recommended guidance for gyms and schools and closed their locations.  This meant they had to cancel the kids’ programs.  They wanted to be a good example for the children they are serving and didn’t want to put the health of their participants at risk.  But knowing how hard kids had been working on their training and how important exercise can be for physical and mental health, especially during stressful times, they knew they had to do something to keep their participants engaged.

They started renting out equipment like dumbbells and jump ropes so the children and families would have the tools they need to work out at home.  Then they also took their classes online.  They offered Zoom classes 3 times per week.  And while there are challenges to getting kids working out online, they also found some advantages too.  Some positive things they saw were an opportunity to not only impact their current students, but their families as well.  They noticed siblings and parents joining in for the workouts and making healthy choices together.  They made the zoom classes available to new students and to supporters beyond Hawaii.  They had participants from 25 states and 12 countries joining in on the zoom workouts.  For the students participating, it was a reminder that people all over the world are in this together.  It was also a way to show the students that people all over the world are there to support them.  Some of these zoom classes were taught by guest coaches from around the world, CrossFit athletes, that students recognized from previous trail run events.

In addition to moving their classes online, they also created the Keala Kids Book.  With so many sports being cancelled and physical education classes not happening at school due to the new “learning from home” model, the health and wellness of students was now in the hands of parents.  So the Keala Foundation developed the Kids Book as a resource for families.  It includes workouts, curriculum, schedules, and other activities.  But the book is more than just workouts, it is a way “to share about different virtues each month that we believe are essential to becoming an amazing human that will contribute positively to their family life, our society, and prepare them for whatever their future holds for them individually.”  It empowers children and their families to get through these challenging times, and also suggests helpful ways they can contribute to their family, such as helping to cook at home, washing the car, or writing a letter to a family member. 

Where are they now?

As restrictions have changed, the Keala Foundation gyms have now opened back up, although their class sizes are now smaller.  Children can now resume workouts at each of their locations.  And as schools prepare for a new learning model this semester, the Keala Foundation is working with them to find ways to best serve the students and families in our community.

There are a few things that will still look different over the coming months.  One of them is the annual Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run.  The money raised from this event funds the Keala Foundation and enables them to offer their program for free.  Much of that funding comes from the mainland as registration fees and donations.  This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions and protecting our local community, it is not possible to hold such a large event.  They will be launching a virtual trail run along with the Hui Aloha campaign. This will be a platform for people to get involved from their homes and alongside their communities from anywhere in the world.

The coaches at the Keala Foundation are leading by example.  They continue to adapt and evolve the program despite these challenging times.  They are committed to helping the community and continue to serve the children who participate in their program.  We are so grateful to this organization and to all of the individual coaches and volunteers for pulling together and showing up to meet the needs of our community.    

If you are interested in getting involved, there are several options:

*If your child wants to participate in the online Zoom classes that are held a few days a week, please email kids@kealafoundation.com for the schedule and protected Zoom link.

*If your child wants to participate in their in-person classes, visit the “Our Programs” section of their website and click on the registration link for the location nearest you. 

*If you would like to participate in the virtual trail run this year, visit the event website and stay tuned as they release more information. http://www.ultimatehawaiiantrailrun.com/

You can make a donation, using this link:

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