Photo: Iopa Maunakea and his Men of PAʻA executive team
Iopa Maunakea (far right) and his Men of PAʻA executive team at the Hilo County Annual Easter Egg Hunt where they provided kōkua for the event. - Courtesy Photo

Hoʻoulu Lāhui

Executive Director Iopa Maunakea has helped hundreds of men turn their lives around through his community nonprofit Men of PAʻA

It was 2018, and after a two-year jail sentence and four months in drug rehab, Carlos Bellotto moved into a clean and sober house.

“I was planning on running the day I was released from jail. I was planning on walking away, just like I always did,” Bellotto said.

A man came up to him, and scolded Bellotto about smoking a cigarette. “I thought ‘Who the hell is this guy? Who is he to tell me where to smoke a cigarette?’ Little did I know, it was Iopa Maunakea. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I didn’t know he was going to be the man who helped to save my life.”

Bellotto is just one of some 300 men who have gone through Maunakeaʻs Men of PAʻA (Positive Action Alliance) program since he founded the community nonprofit located in Hilo in 2006.

The organization’s mission is to empower and enable Kānaka Maoli – particularly Native Hawaiian men – who seek recovery, restoration, and reconciliation with themselves, their ʻohana and the community. That’s accomplished through a process they call Hoʻokanaka, which is a culturally rooted and communally relevant process of personal change activated by servant leadership.

Most men entering the program have either been released from drug treatment, are on furlough from jail, or are in need of community service hours. They stay with Maunakea anywhere from six months to a year maximum, and take on service projects like setting and cleaning up for musical, athletic, church or political events, cleaning yards, picking up rubbish, and participating in major environmental cleanups. The organization also has its own farm, complete with an imu.

“Most of our guys are coming from the justice system, they are sending them to us because they understand that we have a good recidivism record where a lot of our guys don’t go back into the bad things, but they continue doing good things. A lot of them get good jobs, a lot get their families back, and after a while, they even get their self-dignity back,” Maunakea said.

By participating in these service projects, the men polish their work habits and raise their self-esteem by helping the community.

“What it does for the guys is, it gives them a sense of pride back. And once they start to get that pride back, they start to feel good about themselves and it’s like one drop after another and it starts to grow and then they are wanting to do more,” Maunakea added.

Bellotto said he is a proud and grateful member of the Men of PAʻA.

After living in the clean and sober house run by Maunakeaʻs brother Kapoli, Bellotto became a house manager, and in 2022 was hired by Maunakea to work on the farm helping to lead ʻāina-based recovery and ʻāina-based stewardship efforts. He has since added community outreach services to his duties, which still include facilitating clients in their sober house.

“The influence Iopa Maunakea has had on my life has been tremendous,” Bellotto said. “He’s shown me that there is another way to live life without the use of any mind-altering substances. That there is no such thing as no can, and you can do anything you put your mind to.

“He has been there for me from the day I met him. He walked me through the death of my mom, dad and grandma, something I could have never done on my own. He’s put me back in touch with my culture, and he’s taught me that being of service to the community is the key to living a happy and successful life.”

Over the years, Maunakea has developed personal relationships with officials from drug court, with parole and probation officers, with local judges and he is even good friends with the mayor of Hawaiʻi Island.

“I’ve had the honor and privilege to work alongside Iopa and the Men of PAʻA for over two decades as a prosecutor and now mayor,” said Hawaiʻi Island Mayor Mitch Roth.

“What continues to amaze me is just how effective his program is because it’s more than a program – it’s an ʻohana. The values that Iopa strives to instill in these men are those of trust, understanding, and responsibility to our community. Because of those values and his genuine aloha for this place and our people, Hawaiʻi Island is a better place.”

Maunakea – whose sister is Kukui Maunakea-Forth, co-founder and executive director of the ingenious MAʻO Farms program on Oʻahu, comes from good stock. His grandmother was renowned kupuna Katherine Kamalukukui Maunakea, a community educator, composer, author and cultural specialist considered an expert in lāʻau lapaʽau and lauhala weaving.

He is quick to credit his grandmother for being a major influence in his life, and for teaching him na mea Hawaiʻi, or all things Hawaiian.

“Everybody needs a second chance,” Maunakea said. “It aligns with our kūpuna ʻike and it’s about mālama pono. It’s the right thing to do. It is who we are as kānaka. If we aren’t giving everyone a second chance, then I’m not practicing what I was taught by my kupuna. It’s really important for me to be true to myself, and to my own people.”

Relentlessly positive and passionate, Maunakea has never been trained as a professional counselor.

“But I consider myself a professional in the recovery field only because, I have 30 years of recovery myself. I’ve spent half of my life staying sober and working a 12-step program as well.”

Born and raised in Nānākuli, Maunakea admittedly did “some bad stuff” and ended up doing time in prison before going on to a successful career in construction, retiring as a general superintendent with Kiewit Construction.

“I told myself I wanted to do something different. Iʻm gonna make some changes, and I started to realize that the work that I do now is really what I wanted to do prior to coming out of the system,” he said.

“We’re the very ones who can work with these men, because we’re the ones that came from that life. We were the ones robbing, stealing, cheating and lying and all of that. It’s an ideal alignment where one brother who came from that space, is now helping another brother who is in that space.

“There’s a lot of ʻike that brother can share, and the beautiful part about that is this work is not only impacting the people who are in recovery, but it’s impacting the greater community at large as well.”

The Men of PA’A currently have two grants from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

A $100,000 Community Grant supports their Imu Mea Ai project, which helps the men connect to their culture and ʻāina. Tourists are brought to the farm, they help to prepare food for the imu, and while the food is cooked they are given area sightseeing tours before returning for dinner. A second $15,000 Kākoʻo Grant assists the organization with bookkeeping, human resources, insurance, accounting, and grant writing services.

“I thought that was really smart on OHAʻs part,” Maunakea said. “I’ve seen a lot of nonprofits here in Puna that are struggling on the administrative end. I was lucky to put in for that grant for all those different services, the main one being the third-party HR services, because I didn’t know how to do that. Now it’s easy, they do our taxes and everything, and we’re really starting to figure this thing out.”

Maunakea is expecting to add three positions to his current staff of five by the end of the year.

“Because of the grants we received from OHA, we were able to leverage other grants and leverage other initiatives,” Maunakea said. “We have one house now, but we’re going to get another one, and another one after that. We’re excited.

Photo: Bruddah Kuz Youth Jamm Steering Committee
Members of the Bruddah Kuz Youth Jamm Steering Committee, an event Iopa Maunakea – who is also a talented musician – has put on for 15 years. – Courtesy Photo

“What it really is, is love. It’s aloha. It really is aloha. When you do things from aloha, you get 20 times that back. People think it’s work, and we work because we sweat, but people don’t realize that we have fun at the same time. And it’s so rewarding because it just ensures our own recovery too.”

Ask Maunakea what made him turn his own life around, and he mentions his family legacy.

“I was getting into trouble, and I was losing my mind. The greatest thing that made me stop was really my grandmother. She was very sick, and I was out there doing this kolohe thing,” he said.

“I could see her in my mind’s eye, and I could hear her just crying for me. She was saying ʻYou can have more than what you have right now. You have all this potential,’ and she was crying because she saw me just putting that potential down.”

Maunakeaʻs grandmother passed just before Christmas in 1993. He got clean the next month. She never lived to see him have a successful construction career or start a community nonprofit that has helped hundreds of people.

“Right now, I always hear her say maikaʻi, and I feel like she’s pulling my ear,” he said. “Not only because I was hard head, but pulling the ear is about love, it’s about aloha. She’s letting me know that everything is good and all right. I know she’s definitely the one where I get my drive and passion from.

“This work is really about living our ʻohana legacy. It’s not just about helping people; this is a legacy of service. It’s our Maunakea legacy that I’m really all about.

“I’m so glad that I did stop, because in these last 30 years, I know that I’ve helped a lot of people not only to stay healthy, but to stay clean and sober. And I know that, the Men of PAʻA, we are impacting our community.”