- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) - After a high-energy game of flag football at Pomaikai Elementary School, students huddle for a talk with coaches.

“Everybody played good. Everybody did a really good job,” coach Nick Krau tells the Puu Kukui School team of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. “But we can always do better.”

“We can easily beat these guys,” adds coach Aaron Mark, anticipating a rematch against Pomaikai the following week.

Krau and Mark are among Maui Police Department officers who volunteered to be coaches for the inaugural flag football season of the newly formed nonprofit Maui Police Activities League.

In addition to instructing and cheering on the elementary students during practices and weekly after-school games, the police officers developed bonds with the youth.

“That’s what we wanted to have - more interaction with the kids so we can develop relationships with them at an early age, seeing law enforcement or the police in a different light other than arresting people and enforcing laws,” said Byron Fujieda, a Maui County deputy prosecutor who is board president of the Maui Police Activities League.

“In light of events happening with police on the Mainland, there’s a lot of misunderstanding. It’s pretty big to get the police officers out there volunteering their time so the kids can get to know them.

“It’s keeping the kids occupied and also building relationships with the law enforcement community. It’s a positive thing.”

Parents must sign a permission slip for their children to sign up. But participating in the league is free, with no registration fees or uniform costs for students.

“We cannot reach out to our community if we charge because we leave out a big segment of people that we want to get in contact with,” Fujieda said. “We wanted to have everybody included so nobody felt left out.”

Drawing on experiences of long-established Police Activities Leagues on other islands, the Maui league was formed in 2015 to provide recreation-oriented crime prevention programs.

Its first program was a summer basketball league for intermediate school students in central Maui.

The flag football program, started in October to reach elementary school students, included 130 youths from Pomaikai, Wailuku, Waihee, Puu Kukui and Lihikai schools, said community policing officer Aylett Wallwork, who is league treasurer.

“We didn’t expect this many kids,” he said.

To supplement donations, the league held fundraisers that helped pay for team T-shirts for each student.

Wallwork said the flag football teams had students from various backgrounds.

“If you can get the kids at risk with the kids that are not, they kind of learn from each other,” he said.

In addition to Krau and Mark, the volunteer police coaches included Gregg Rowe at Puu Kukui, Nephi Laga and Kawika Ornellas at Wailuku Elementary, Kamuela Mawae at Waihee School, Gordon Sagun and Gregg Okamoto at Pomaikai and Melvin Johnson and his wife, Nohea, at Lihikai School.

Wallwork said the police officers enjoyed participating as much as the students.

“After being around the kids for a while, it makes your day a little better, seeing the kids having fun,” he said.

At first, having police officers as coaches was a distraction for some students, said Krau, who is sergeant of the Police Department’s DUI Task Force.

“They would always ask us about Tasing people and Tasers. They always had questions about being police officers,” he said. “We answered the majority of their questions. We had to get past that. Now they’re a little more focused.”

Krau said the students learn the basic principles of football without the contact during the games that feature eight players on each team.

“It’s about competition and doing their best and getting better,” he said. “Their coordination, their athletic ability, it’s improved in all of them.”

It was also a learning experience for the coaches, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity for officers to be out here in the community with the kids,” Krau said. “We’re getting to know them, showing them who we are, that we’re not just police officers. We’re normal people and we’re here for them, to support them.

“We want to make sure our community knows and kids know that here on Maui, our Police Department supports our community and the kids. We want to be positive role models for them.”

After Wallwork asked Krau if he would volunteer to be a coach, Krau recruited Mark, a DUI Task Force officer who formerly worked in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program on Lanai.

Mark, who used his lunch hour to help coach Puu Kukui games and practices, said he enjoyed working with kids in the league.

“This gives everyone a chance to have fun and come out and play football,” he said. “We have a whole varying level of ability and all different personalities. They have a blast.”

Another Puu Kukui coach was Larry Goade, a U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer whose sons Garrett, 9, and Wyatt, 11, played on the Puu Kukui team.

“It’s all about having fun,” Goade said. “My goal is to make sure they have fun and to make sure they want to play this sport again.”

Kahului resident Scott Nashiwa said that through the Maui Police Activities League, his 8-year-old son, Nick, had the chance to play football for the first time in a less expensive and less dangerous setting than a Pop Warner league.

“It’s something he wanted to try,” Nashiwa said. “I think it benefits all of the kids. It gives them opportunities. They all show up for practice. They all have that high energy.

“Hats off to the coaches. The kids look up to them, especially because they’re police officers too.”

Nick was quarterback for the Puu Kukui team.

Bridgette Okamoto said her three sons - 8-year-old Gannon and 10-year-old twins Gaige and Galen - enjoyed playing on the Pomaikai team.

“They love it,” she said. “It’s good because I don’t really want them to play Pop Warner, the hard-core football, at this age. They’re learning the concept of football. It’s a safe way for them to play football, that’s the most important thing.”

When one boy accidentally pulled the flag off his teammate, it wasn’t a big deal. “They’re just learning and going with it,” she said. “It’s OK if you make a mistake. It’s supposed to be fun.

“The coaches are really great. They’re really positive. There’s just a lot of support. The kids embrace that.”

Fujieda and fellow Deputy Prosecutor Brandon Segal, who is league secretary, got involved after Wallwork asked for help forming the league. Wailuku attorney Loren Tilley, another board member, volunteered to help set up the charitable organization’s 501(c)(3) status.

“We were just glad to be able to be involved in this,” Fujieda said.

Other board members include police Assistant Chief Victor Ramos, who is vice president, Deputy Chief Dean Rickard and Lt. Gregg Okamoto.

So far, participation in the league has been better than anticipated, Fujieda said.

“We expected something really slow in the beginning,” he said. “But once we got the parks and the schools involved, it kind of exploded on us, which is good.”

A jiujitsu martial art program is on tap for next year.

And organizers hope to draw on talents of police officers for additional programs, not just involving sports. In Honolulu, the Police Activities League sponsors cooking classes.

“Ultimately, we want to expand to other types of activities,” Fujieda said. “We’re still in the growing stage. People haven’t heard of us yet.

“We rely a lot on donations. Hopefully, people can recognize the good we do.”

___

Information from: The Maui News, https://www.mauinews.com

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