Tuesday | July 25, 2017
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BJ Penn foundation reaches out to island’s at-risk youth

“What are you going to do? Are you going to fight?”

That’s the question mixed martial arts superstar BJ Penn said he’s been getting every time he shows his face in public.

“I cannot go anywhere without getting that question,” he said Friday morning from the lanai of his family home in Wainaku.

As for the answer, that’s something he doesn’t appear to be ready to share just yet: “I don’t even know at this point,” he said. “I’ve been having fun, training in the gym. … I’ve got lots of projects I’m working on.”

The 34-year-old former UFC world champion has kept fight fans across the globe guessing about whether he will retire ever since his loss by unanimous decision to Rory MacDonald in December.

Despite the attention on his future inside the octagon, Penn said he’s had plenty going on to keep himself busy.

“I like hanging out with friends, working with my foundation, working out at the gym,” he said.

Penn said he was especially proud of the work he’s done through his Penn Hawaii Youth Foundation, which the mixed martial arts champ founded in 2010.

The organization works to provide mentorship for at-risk youth who might otherwise fall through the cracks and not receive the attention they deserve, said Lorraine Shin, Penn’s mother and president of the youth foundation.

“But mostly, we just give them lots of love,” she said. “We let them know we care about them.”

Two classes are accepted each year, and each goes through an eight-week session held for up to 40 kids, Shin said. They’re taught martial arts at the Penn Training & Fitness Center in Hilo, but more importantly, they are taught the critical life lessons about self-control, self-respect and more that go along with martial arts training, Penn said.

“We help them make sure they can reach their goals. They’re either troubled or coming from bad influences, and we want to make sure we help these people,” he said.

In addition to the training sessions, the groups are encouraged to take part in community service projects, such as the public restroom paint job the students recently did at Leleiwi Beach Park in Keaukaha.

While Penn’s foundation has continued to provide a variety of opportunities for its young charges, the organization has run into an all-too-common problem on the Big Island — that of transportation.

“We’re trying to get these kids out here from areas in Puna, Pahoa, and it’s just too far,” Shin said.

Working in conjunction with Love’s Bakery and Orchid Isle Auto Center, Penn has begun a fundraising campaign for a new, 15-passenger van that will be used to pick up young program participants in Pahoa and ferry them to his Hilo gym so they won’t miss out in the foundation’s training sessions.

Since August, loaves of Love’s Roman Meal Honey Oat bread bearing Penn’s likeness have been on sale throughout the state. Each loaf purchased will donate 30 cents toward the purchase of the van, Shin said.

“That’s a lot of bread, but we can do it,” she said.

The promotion also allows fans to enter to win a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and hang out with BJ. The winner and a guest with meet the MMA champ and take a personal tour of his gym in Honolulu, followed by lunch at his favorite restaurant in Waikiki, Giovanni Pastrami.

When asked what fans can expect from spending time with the champ, Penn said it would be a casual, laid-back affair.

“Like what we’re doing now,” he said. “Just kicking back, talking story.”

For more on the contest, visit lovesbakeryhawaii.com. Or, to learn more about Penn and what he is up to, visit bjpenn.com.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.