The Story of the Keala Foundation and how the CrossFit Community has Helped Raise $2.5 Million for Hawaiian Youth

March 27, 2023 by
Photo Credit: The Keala Foundation
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Growing up in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, Aaron Hoff was exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age. 

“There is a lot of drug and alcohol use here. It’s just a part of the community and it’s very accepted. It’s just normal. Every kid here, that stuff crosses their path at a young age,” Hoff explained of the culture in Kauai. 

“We don’t really know anything else, and there is no alternative. So you’re just being walked right into a slaughter house growing up,” said Hoff, who first started drinking and dabbling with drugs at the age 9, behavior that eventually took over his life as an adult, nearly ruining it by the time he was in his early 20s. 

“By the age of 23, I had cops looking for me. I had guys flying over here from the other islands to come and kill me because I had stolen all their dope. I was just in a bad spot,” he said. 

Eventually he became suicidal.

Now, 25 years sober, Hoff is the Founder of the Keala Foundation which owns four non-profit CrossFit gyms in Kauai and an organization called the Keala Foundation aimed at helping Hawaiian youth use CrossFit and fitness to get fit and healthy, and most importantly to get clean, or to avoid even beginning to use drugs and alcohol in the first place.

Through the years, the CrossFit community has played a role in helping the Keala Foundation raise more than $2.5 million for Hawaiian youth through the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, a fundraiser that will be celebrating their 10th year anniversary this September in Kauai. 

Trading in Drugs for CrossFit: Hoff’s Story

While going through rehab, Hoff experienced a life changing moment, where, in the blink of an eye, he realized how desperately he wanted to get clean.

“The pain is so bad and you just want the pain to stop,” he said. 

In that moment he heard God say, ‘You’re going to be OK’. 

That was enough for Hoff. His desires to turn to drugs and alcohol disappeared and he knew he would never turn to them again. 

“It was like I had my glasses on backwards my whole life, and at that moment I put them on correctly and I could see everything clearly,” he said. 

The problem was, once Hoff got out of rehab at the age of 24 years old, he lost all his friends, as everyone was still drinking and partying, so he had to give everyone the cold shoulder, he explained. 

To replace his friends, Hoff started recruiting kids and young teens and would take them surfing. 

They kept him clean and sober “and carried me through the hardest years of my sobriety,” he explained.

Then 11 years ago, a friend introduced Hoff to CrossFit. Hoff took to it immediately, and began driving an hour a day, always with a car full of kids and teens, to the gym to workout.

“On the way there, I would talk about sobriety and important things in life, and then we would workout, and then on the way home we’d talk more,” he said. 

Soon he realized he was as much a mentor to these kids as he was a chauffeur and workout buddy. And after some time, the kids became more and more addicted to CrossFit and less and less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol, something Hoff credits to the environment at CrossFit, which creates a “common bond,” that helped him connect with them in a way he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Realizing he was making a real difference in the lives of the youth he was working with, Hoff decided to open his own gym targeted at youth, not just to get them fit, but also to keep them on a healthy path in life. 

He started with CrossFit Poipu in Kauai in 2012, and today he owns four non-profit gyms on the island, all funded by the Keala Foundation, which service more than 700 youth aged 5 to 18.

Each gym follows a curriculum that the team has developed from Hoff’s vision over the years that includes CrossFit, and also provides them tools to, for example, process trauma and make good decisions in their life. 

“They’re being taught these things without them being in a classroom, so they don’t even realize they’re being taught these tools,” Hoff said.

Next up for Hoff and the Foundation is to release the youth curriculum to other gym owners looking to offer a CrossFit program for youth, which is set to happen this summer. 

The Keala Foundation and The Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run

The Keala Foundation’s biggest fundraiser every year is the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail run, a fundraiser that has attracted big names in the CrossFit community, including founder Greg Glassman, since its first year a decade ago.

Since then, athletes like 2008 CrossFit Games champion Jason Khalipa, now the owner of NCFIT, Miranda Alcaraz, the founder of Street Parking, and CrossFit Games athletes like Noah Ohlsen, Kara Saunders and Dan Bailey have all supported and attended the event and have helped the annual event raise more than $2.5 million the last last decade.

So far, the most runners to participate in the event—which generally offers a 5 and 10-km option, as well as a more challenging GORUCK division—was in 2019, when there were 1,200 participants. 

Considering this September 16th will be the 10th year hosting the run, Hoff is hoping this year will eclipse that number and see at least 1,500.

Not Possible Without CrossFit

Regardless of how many people choose to run the always muddy trails in the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run in September, Hoff has his eyes on the bigger picture: On continuing to tackle a problem that has needed tackling for a long time.

“I watch it change the direction of so many lives. I’m leading the fight in something that has been so neglected over here in Kauai,” Hoff said. “It gives me a purpose that’s actually changing lives…My life has a purpose that infects other people’s lives with purpose, and for such a good cause.”

And it’s something he would never have been able to do without CrossFit.

“The greatest tool CrossFit has is it provides an environment that produces suffering that creates a common bond, that creates a bridge into a person’s soul to change their life,” he said. 

Register for the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, or make a donation, here.

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