“Po” Kivaha was the intended victim when his buddy was shot and blinded in one eye. But a team of social workers defused an imminent gang war and offered him a way out.
My friend was shot. I was the target and they missed. I felt the shotgun pellets go right past me.”
Laupo “Po” Kivaha was big for his age while growing up in Kalihi’s Kamehameha IV housing project. Based on size alone, Kaupo was often challenged to fight, whether he wanted to or not.
“Sixth grade was my first fight,” he remembers. “It was me and this kid from Kuhio Park Terrace. I was the big kid. He was the big kid. It was like you had to do something. All eyes were on you.”
Kivaha won that first fight. The other boy fell to the ground and stayed there.
“I felt like I was ‘The Man.’ After that, (I had) superstar status when I walked around campus. That’s what makes you do it more.”
Now 25, Kivaha tells his story quietly in the offices of Adult Friends for Youth in an industrial area near Honolulu Airport, where he’s a clinical associate and training to be a therapist. Kivaha remembers how easily he and others boys – some just 12 like himself – were recruited by older gang members.
“They showed love,” he says. “They were my brothers. They were smoking weed, selling drugs. I wanted that lifestyle. It was fun.”
They came up with a plan: That the best thing for me was to leave the island. … I went to stay with a relative for two weeks on the Big Island.”
He remembers the beatings at home and says he never listened to his family, including his older brothers. The gang became like a family.
While he wanted to change, it didn’t seem possible. “The bad influence outweighed the good.”
But then something turned his life around. That incident remains starkly in his memory, just like the night it happened.
“My friend was shot,” he says, slowly now.
“I was the target and they missed. I felt the shotgun pellets go right past me. I saw the flashes. (The attacker) shot six times, standing on the bottom of the hill behind bushes. He was aiming for my head but missed. And then he ran.”
Pellets struck Kivaha’s friend, who was standing next to him, hitting him in the face and blinding him in one eye.
The shooting was part of an ongoing rumble between gangs that Kivaha says began with one youth being stabbed and almost dying.
The shooting left Kivaha feeling alone and vulnerable. He says when he needed them most, his gang of “brothers” wasn’t there.
But someone else was.
“The first people who showed up on my doorstep were from AFY – Mo, Sid, Debby and Mac – all the big-timers. This all happened at 4 in the morning and they were there by 8. The house was all taped up. That morning they came up with a plan: That the best thing was for me to leave the island. They paid for everything and I went to stay with a relative for two weeks on the Big Island. That was so AFY could talk to the rival gangs and things could cool down.”
Kivaha went along with the plan because he respected the social workers. In the next few weeks, AFY negotiated a peace treaty between the gangs.
Today, says Kivaha, he sees his former rivals and they even play basketball together.
He is close to graduating with an associate of arts degree. Soon, he’ll be going to Chaminade University on a $20,000 scholarship secured by AFY from a generous donor.
The door opened by the social workers is the one he wants to walk through. He’s excited about the future and about his young family, two daughters, both under four. And he avoids trouble at all costs.
“I keep my distance. I don’t put myself in a situation where I’m going to get into trouble. I’ve got too much to lose.”