Moloka'i in the NY Times

I was born and raised on the little Hawaiian island called Moloka'i. Whenever I talk to people about it, I always refer to it as "my island" which some people seem to get a kick out of. What they don't understand is that there are only about 7000 people who live there so, yeah, its small enough where I can refer to it as "mine." The odds of them knowing someone else from there are very, very slim. map_molokai

Last night, I climbed into to bed and began my nightly ritual of reading the New York Times via my iPhone app. I got to the Sports section and, read this story:

In Hawaii, High School Sports Are Far From Paradise

PHILADELPHIA — Shane Victorino, the Phillies’ All-Star center fielder, is a long way from Maui, where he grew up, but he still tries his best to keep up with what is going on at home.

About a month ago, he said, he read a newspaper article online that hit him hard. The Hawaii High School Athletic Association, walloped by recent state budget cuts, had pleaded for financial help from private citizens and corporations. The fledgling fund-raising drive was called Save Our Sports, or S.O.S., and two banks, two foundations and the head of the association had pledged a total of $430,000.

Victorino, 28, called his father, Mike, a city councilman living in Wailuku, a town near the sugarcane fields that cover Maui’s arid central plain, and asked him more about the situation. Then Victorino, an Eagle Scout who was once a multisport star at St. Anthony High School on Maui, told the association’s chairman, Keith Amemiya, that he would send a check for $10,000.

At last count, officials had collected more than $700,000 of their $1.2 million goal, helping the association keep sports seasons going and avoid the prospect of forcing students to pay to play.

“It was almost like an obligation to do that,” Victorino said before a recent Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park. “It tells me something. In Hawaiian culture, everybody’s got each other’s back. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen anywhere else, but it is true in Hawaii. Family is No. 1.”

A year after the association narrowly avoided a cut in state financing, it watched the state government slash $2.4 million this summer of the $6.7 million it had budgeted for athletic programs covering about 25,000 students statewide.

Hawaii has no top-level professional sports teams and limited college offerings beyond the University of Hawaii, so high school sports carry greater significance for many. Residents identify themselves by high school alma mater. Everyone knows President Obama attended Punahou School in Honolulu.

But water, and the travel required to cross it, complicate matters for an organization overseeing statewide competition for 95 schools.

“On Lanai and Molokai, every game is really an away game,” Amemiya said in a telephone interview from his office in Honolulu. With a slight chuckle, he added, “You can’t drive there, or your bus will sink.”

Victorino said St. Anthony, a private school, could fly to most away games, but he knew he was lucky. The Maui Interscholastic League includes two high schools on Lanai and Molokai, and getting from those islands to Maui is expensive, complicated and time consuming.

Camie Kimball, the athletic director at Molokai High School, a public school with about 330 students in grades 9 through 12, said sports teams usually must ride a ferry to Maui. The ride takes about 1 hour 45 minutes each way, and Kimball said the round-trip fare ran from $80 to $105 per student.

When a team arrives in Lahaina, Maui, players wait until a coach catches a cab ride to fetch a bus kept nearby at Lahainaluna High School.

For a tournament in August on Oahu, the Molokai girls’ volleyball team slept at a nearby high school and cooked meals in the cafeteria.

“There’s not a whole lot to do on this island,” Kimball said in a telephone interview from her office on Molokai. “We don’t even have a movie theater anymore. We don’t have a whole lot of industry.”

Molokai’s unemployment rate topped 16 percent in July, and Kimball said several athletes at the high school would probably have had to drop out had they been required to pay fees. Amemiya and his wife, Bonny, donated $30,000 to the S.O.S. fund in July, including $15,000 for Molokai High School to cover interisland travel costs.

“When times are tough here, people pitch in, especially for sports — and this is gender-neutral,” said Jack Tsui, a former president at First Hawaiian Bank who is now with the Clarence T. C. Ching Foundation, which pledged $200,000 to the drive. “I’m really not overly surprised. I thought people in the state would help out.”

They have, Amemiya said, often with $20 checks. But Amemiya said tourists had contributed to the S.O.S. fund after learning about it. The drive ends in October, and Amemiya said he thought the goal would be met.

“This is a need-to-have,” Mufi Hannemann, the mayor of Honolulu, said in a telephone interview. “Sports is not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. The importance of the issue is sky-high. People here get it about the value of sports.”

For his part, Victorino said he could not imagine instituting a fee for sports. “You shouldn’t have to pay to play as a kid,” he said.

Moloka'i High is the only HS on the island. So the school district is made up of three islands - Maui, Moloka'i and Lanai - meaning, to play sports, you need to travel to the other islands. My Dad recently retired after teaching and administrating at Moloka'i High for 39 years. I know he was heavily involved in this and I know its still a concern for him, as well as the rest of the community. The athletic director quoted in the article was one of my favorite teachers. I think its so kind of Shane Victorino to use the resources available to him bring attention to this issue and make a personal donation to help schools, other than his own, in the district.

Home been on my mind a lot the past few days because of the raging wildfire that's burning the island. I know there's devastating fires going on in LA right now, but this one hits much closer to home. Literally.

Over the weekend, I got an email from my mom saying that a brush fire had started. I knew that our neighborhood had a lot of dry brush around it, but I really didn't think it was a big deal. Progressively, I kept getting more emails, then voicemails from her and then I started to get text messages from my sister, who lives in Arizona. For her to start sending me updates, well, then I knew it was a big deal.

Then friends at home, started posting photos, videos and updates on Facebook. It looked pretty bad. My mom told me that the homes at the top of our street (we live on a hill) had been evacuated and my Dad and neighbors had been up all Saturday night fighting this thing. Thankfully, the update on Sunday was that it had been contained.

But today, as I read the local news web sites and Facebook updates, I learned that the winds shifted and other areas of the island are in danger. The last report that I read was that 7200 acres has burned. The island is only 30 miles long, so what percentage of the island is that? I'm not a math person, I won't even attempt to try to figure it out, but I know its a lot.

For an island that depends on agriculture for income, this will probably hurt a lot. And because as an island, its isolated, firefighters had to be flown in from neighboring islands, with residents just as much in the thick of things as the firefighters. Helicopters were filling buckets with water from the community swimming pool and the ocean.

I don't usually think about home very much. In fact, I haven't been back to visit in over two years. When people ask me if I miss it, I usually say not really, because I think I don't. But for the past few days, this has weighed heavily on my mind and I've come to realize, once again, what a special place it is and how fortunate I am to call it home. The island has a unique sense of community that carries a lot of pride and is truly one of the most special places on earth.

And I still can't believe our little 'ol school was featured in the New York Times.