Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Off of Kaohu Street in Wailuku, Maui, stands a nondescript warehouse that has become a gathering for young people looking for a place to belong. Walking through its doors, one is inundated by soft lights, the staccato slap of leather hitting canvas and the afterthought of ammonia, liniment and sweat that hangs in the air. The atmosphere is electric with the unmistakable energy of unbridled youth, unholstered dreams and the eight-punch combination. It is the home of the Central Maui Boxing Club (CMBC), a 30-year-old passion project started by Roy Balala and Donovyne Moleta out of Balala’s Kahului garage that was lean on equipment but rich in aloha for the children of the Valley Isle.
Operated today by Moleta’s son, Chazz, CMBC trains over 40 boys and girls ranging from ages six to 17 in the fundamentals of the sweet science and the golden rules of being a good person.
“Uncle Roy and my dad wanted to keep the kids of the neighborhood out of trouble, and in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, boxing was popular,” said Chazz. “Uncle Roy was a cross country and track coach so he took care of the conditioning, and my father took care of the boxing.”
Chazz himself would matriculate through the club where he shined as the Hawai‘i State USA Boxing champion from 1998-2006. He was ranked in the top 10 nationally by the end of his high school career and would eventually enter the ring professionally as a boxer and a mixed martial arts fighter, but his interests began to turn in other directions as he grew older.
“I began boxing when I was eight so by the time I turned 18, I was ready to get on with my life.”
Chazz was on a job with Maui County as a heavy equipment operator in Hana when he received a call that would change his life. “One of our coaches phoned and said Lahāinā was on fire, but even then I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about.”
The inferno had begun innocently as a small blaze ignited by a downed power line that had been felled by the remnants of the powerful winds of Hurricane Dora that had only recently bypassed Maui. Initially doused by local first responders, the fire continued to smolder under the ashes, roaring back to life in four separate conflagrations that erupted after everyone had left. Gathering speed by the minute, the fire exploded down the hillsides above Lahāinā fueled by an endless supply of desiccated brush that was the result of a widespread climate-changing drought, invasive grasses and controversial water policies that had haunted Maui for years. Driven by the same gale force winds that had sparked the initial flare up, the growing nightmare engulfed the town before many could escape forcing others to flee into the ocean just to survive.
The maelstrom would become the most devastating wildfire in the history of the United States over the past century. It would end up killing almost 100 people, destroying more than 2,000 homes and damaging 800 businesses that had employed over 7,000 workers who had poured $2 million a day into the Hawai‘i economy. Officials estimate that the fire, which at its peak reached temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, incinerated 3,200 acres representing 10 percent of Maui’s 735 total square miles. Of Lahāinā’s pre-fire population of 13,000 at least 7,200 were left homeless. Authorities believe that it will cost somewhere between $4- to $6 billion to rebuild Lahāinā. But what has been lost of what was once a special and magical part of Maui will never be reclaimed.
“The human cost is beyond imagination,” said Chazz. “Almost everyone on Maui has either lost someone or knows a family who is suffering greatly.”
CMBC would end up turning their gym into an emergency shelter for friends, families and strangers who had lost everything and had nowhere to go. Eventually, the gym evolved into a drop-off center for badly needed donations of food, clothes, water and hygiene products that were gratefully accepted by many who had fled the catastrophe with only the clothes on their backs.
“At the beginning, I was stuck in Hana, so it was our staff, coaches, students, neighbors and friends who organized everything,” shared Chazz. “We attracted an Instagram following, which helped, and whatever we could do, we did.”
What complicates broader relief efforts is a lingering distrust of the state and federal government among some of Lahāinā’s survivors who still carry within them the painful memory of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and the subsequent annexation of the nation by the United States in 1898. The fear of a second wave of carpetbaggers descending upon Maui and using this tragedy to benefit themselves is commonly shared and not unfounded. As a result, some refugees are only relying on community-based services that are led by familiar faces they know and trust.
Three months after the fire, CMBC’s effort to support their island home remains unwavering. Their gym still serves as a drop-off center for donations, which are then distributed throughout west Maui with the help of old Lahāinā’s unofficial mayor, Junior Tevaga and countless volunteers. Just as important, CMBC has also delivered hope, kindness and love at a desperate time for so many.
For Chazz and many others, the work has become an opportunity to reach out and serve their larger community beyond the scope of their daily lives.
“Even though the fire happened in Lahāinā, everyone on Maui has been impacted. The fire was so overwhelming; we knew we couldn’t just depend on the government,” concludes Chazz. “So we’ve learned to lean on each other and do what needs to get done. We’ve seen that anything can happen in life, and nothing surprises us now. But Maui people are strong, and we will get through this, and although it may take a long time, we will recover.”
Alan Suemori is a graduate of Columbia University in New York City and has taught English and history at ‘Iolani School for 31 years. Along with Wendell Silva and Shuzo Uemoto, he co-authored “Nana I Na Loea Hula,” a compilation of over 100 oral histories and black-and-white portrait photographs that documented the traditional hula resources of Hawai‘i. He is also the co-author of the recently published book “Teaching Joy: Creating a Joyful Middle School Classroom,” and two children’s books, “Leilani: Blessed and Grateful” and “Kaiona the Kia‘i.”