Bryden Kahiapo Ka‘auwai has undeniable charisma. When he walks into a room, faces light up. That magnetism is exactly what led him to become Hawaii’s Youth of the Year, an annual honor awarded by Hawaii Alliance of Boys and Girls Club to a high school student who excels in leadership skills.
His commanding presence and towering height contribute to his magnetism, but it’s his positivity to which most people are drawn. He reminds anyone with whom he’s in the room just how much there is to be thankful for.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” says Tina Albao, Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii (BGCH) Kauai director of operations. “He’s just a really caring and sweet individual.”
Lea Nuesca, BGCH Kauai program director for the Lihue Clubhouse, agrees wholeheartedly.
“He always comes here with a smile, and it affects everyone in such a wonderful way,” she says. “He’s also really encouraging to everyone. He’s so upbeat and just happy.”
He’s also driven. That’s why he won a $5,000 scholarship and is on his way to Southern California to compete for the Pacific Region Youth of the Year title in June — and he’s only a sophomore at Kauai High School. In fact, Nuesca says it’s rare for a “first-timer” in the BGCH leadership program — a three-month-long academy where teenage members learn skills such as public speaking, networking, interviewing and essay writing — to place among the top three finalists during the first round of competitions, let alone become the state champion.
“He doesn’t want anyone to stop him,” says Albao.
And, so far, no one has. Not even the bullies who took pleasure in intimidating him when he was younger. They were so awful at the time, the harassment triggered Ka‘auwai to have suicidal thoughts. With family troubles at home exacerbating the issue, he felt like he had no one to turn to — not even his parents.
“I just hid my emotions,” he says.
He understands how those emotions can fester and how important it is to have a support system, which is why he’s so actively involved with BGCH and enjoys providing mentorship to younger keiki. He also plays a prominent role in the club’s suicide-prevention program.
In other words, he’s come full circle, managing to turn a negative into a positive. And that journey is what he chose to discuss in his speech that won him the title of Hawaii’s Youth of the Year March 30 at the state Capitol.
He admits he couldn’t have done it without the support of fellow teen BGCH members. “They made me feel like I was actually worth it and encouraged me to never give up. They were always there for me and stuck by my side. They were the help that any person deserves,” says Ka‘auwai, who also regularly volunteers at the clubhouse and tutors several younger members. “Everyone needs a support system when they’re going through struggles and challenges.”
He discovered BGCH earlier in life when he joined the Kapaa Clubhouse. But after several years away, last summer he gravitated back to the after-school organization. This time, however, he found his way to the Lihue group through an Alu Like work program. “It helped me find my purpose,” says Ka‘auwai, who plays the tuba and has dreams of attending Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
He loved the work experience so much that he started volunteering at the clubhouse after his summer job was done. He was encouraged to join the Leadership in Training program, which quickly led him to winning Youth of the Year for the BGCH, which includes Oahu and Kauai clubs, and then Youth of the Year for Hawaii Alliance of Boys & Girls Club, which encompasses clubs across the state.
Though he’s learned several new skills along the way, such as public speaking that he says he now can do with ease, Ka‘auwai’s main mission is sending positive messages to keiki who may be contemplating suicide.
“Never give up; push through your challenges,” he says. “If you feel alone, just as I did, just continue on because there is someone out there to support you and help you out. And there’s always a way out of it.”
When Ka‘auwai walks through the clubhouse, he draws other members to him like a magnet — there is no doubt his guidance is making an impact on them and that he will continuing making waves throughout his life.
“I can see him in the Oval Office meeting the president,” says Albao.
Visit bgch.com for more information.