Nolan “Alika” Kaahanui

Photo from Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy

Photo from Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy

As a senior at Aiea High School, Nolan “Alika” Kaahanui was lost.

Dabbling in substance abuse and far from receiving his high school diploma, he already was on probation and facing another year of it. Then, in a gas station, he stumbled upon a brochure for Hawaii National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy (YCA).

After showing it to his counselor and speaking about it with his probation officer and judge, Kaahanui eventually enrolled in the program.

What followed wasn’t an overnight transformation. The military-style program was physically and mentally demanding, and within the first week, Kaahanui wanted out.

Threatening the staff and on the verge of doing anything he could to leave, Kaahanui was placed in a room with one of the program’s participating sergeants. What ensued was a session of some very tough love, but it also made Kaahanui realize that he did not want to fail his grandparents, who always had been there for him.

Luckily, YCA gave Kaahanui a second chance. “And thank God they did,” he says. “It was life-changing; it actually saved my life.”

Kaahanui eventually graduated from the program’s second class with his high school diploma, though his release from YCA wasn’t a smooth transition. Soon Kaahanui found himself meeting his “old self.”

One day, his mother returned from a period of abandonment that had left Kaahanui in charge of his eight siblings. With nothing to eat and no money, he sought to take the family to his grandparents’ home.

On that same day, a mentor, with whom he had been placed as a graduate of YCA, called asking to hang out. Informing him of the situation, Kaahanui asked for a ride.

“He didn’t even have to think about it, he just said, ‘Sure,'” Kaahanui says of his mentor, who lived in Kailua, while he and his family lived in Makaha.

As he and his siblings went through their closets looking for items to take with them, he stumbled upon his old YCA uniform.

“I looked at it and I just dropped to my knees,” he says. “That’s the only time in my life everything was going right when I was wearing that uniform — that’s the only time I saw my ‘reflection.'”

Today, Kaahanui is a technical sergeant with Hawaii Air National Guard and a father of three with one more on the way. His busy schedule prevents him from being as active in YCA as he once was, though someday he hopes to become the program’s director.

This year, YCA, which was featured on MidWeek‘s May 16, 2012, cover, celebrates 20 years. Since its inception, the program has seen the successful graduation of more than 3,600 teenagers, many of whom have been in similar situations of distress and in need of direction and motivation.

On July 18, YCA will hold an anniversary dinner to honor Kaahanui and two other YCA graduates, Boyd Torricer-Montero and Anthony Selvanathan.

Proceeds from the evening will be used to establish a computer lab program at its Kalaeloa and Hilo campuses.

For tickets, call 497-7264.