When 30 year old Michael Mendoza was growing up in Ewa Beach, he didn't see a future for himself. "My relatives were involved in an Oahu gang, with crimes so violent they were more than once the subject of news reports," he recalls.
"My brother eventually had to be sent to the Philippines because of his heavy involvement in gang activity. He even became very violent even to me. I was very sad and afraid for him," Mendoza details.
The pain of seeing relatives in and out of the legal system hurt deeply. "I remember being at a family party when I was about eight years old. Suddenly, a bunch of us kids were ushered into a car to keep us safe because a fight broke out. Someone brought out a knife and was threatening to stab people."
His parents' divorce compounded the suffering. "I witnessed so much fighting when I was in elementary school, I found myself alone crying mostly every night," he shares. Rather than bringing the remaining siblings together, the conflict drove them apart.
Music, he says, was his escape, and the only uniting element for his family. "Music was the only time when I barely saw any fighting. My mother and sisters sing. My brother dances. I spin records." He started seriously spinning when he was 16 years old, and hanging out with friends who were mobile DJs to learn more.
Michael Mendoza, aka DJ Kurious
He eventually started his own DJ business, DJ Kurious Hawaii, to play at weddings, parties, and clubs. Music gives to him - but it also lets him give to others.
It was the force that kept him alive inside, he says, because the problems of his youth had grown into a major problem. "I felt very alone in life and had no purpose. When I graduated from high school in 2003, I went through a great depression and did nothing at all with my life. I stayed home a whole year."
Mendoza at the Y, 2006. Courtesy: Michael Mendoza
In 2004, Mendoza got a job at the YMCA's Leeward branch. There, he befriended his coworkers, who were all active volunteers in the community. It changed him profoundly.
"The YMCA taught me important values that I was never shown in my youth. I credit Leeward YMCA's program director Eric Bautista for pushing and teaching me to grow professionally. He was a major reason I decided to take my schooling seriously," thanks Mendoza.
Bautista and Mendoza at YMCA, 2006. Courtesy: Michael Mendoza
Bautista, who left the Y to start his own business, Party Pix Hawaii, remembers meeting Mendoza. "He was young and impressionable, lost and directionless. Yet I could tell he had a very good heart and needed someone to help mentor him."
Bautista gave Mendoza a position as his sports assistant to be nearer to him and help mentor him. It worked. "He excelled. His self-confidence grew, and expanded to other areas of his life."
The Y also gave him something else he didn't have: Family. This family inspired him to want to help others.
He enrolled at University of Phoenix pursuing a bachelor's degree in human services; he was graduated in 2012. At the same time, in order to support himself, Mendoza started working as a skills trainer for the Department of Education. Since 2007, he has been working with autistic children with violent and psychotic tendencies.
As helpful as working with autistic children was - "it brought out the best in me" - he still felt purposeless and drifting.
While on assignment at Makalapa Elementary School in 2010, he had another incredible experience that helped set his life's course. It came at a time when he characterizes his depression as being at an "all-time high."
The gift. Courtesy: Michael Mendoza
"I had sprained my knees really bad and couldn't afford metal knee braces. A teacher I barely knew asked what happened to me, so I told her. The next day she handed me an envelope with over $350 in cash. She told me, 'This means much more to me than you think.'"
"I will never forget what she did for me. She gave more than just money, she gave me a purpose. I have never spent it. That envelope reminds me everyday that there are people out there like me, suffering and alone- but a simple act of kindness can change that person forever," he concludes softly.
All this time, Mendoza had been working on the side as a DJ - both for supplemental income, as well as a way to offer his services at fundraisers and non-profit events. However, he now wanted to step up his efforts in giving.
Mendoza rarely turns down a request to help. Two of his biggest charity causes are the Alzheimers Association, which is where I met him - we both volunteered at the Walk To End Alzheimers, and Honolulu Theater for Youth.
Me and Mike
He also works on the weekends at Slam Hype, a clothing store in Pearlridge Shopping Center which hires a live DJ to play in-store. "I get paid in clothes, and I started giving the clothes to homeless youth." He estimates he's given away $1,500 in new clothing.
In 2014 came the third and most powerful incident to shape his life. "I was put in touch with a very sad case of a homeless orphan," remembers Mendoza.
"The boy's family had abandoned him and he was living on the streets. I wanted to give him my clothing trade, so his social worker brought him to the store one weekend to meet me. The boy, in his late teens, looked down, like he wasn't sure what to expect. I said, 'I don't know what happened with your life, but I just want to help you out. Go pick out $250 in new clothes.'"
When the boy was finished, "he seemed scared or ashamed to make eye contact with me. He looked down, thanked me, and left. His social worker and my friend Deni Araki told me he cried the minute he left the store. Nobody had done anything nice for him in his life," finishes Mendoza.
That's when it all came together. "It was in that moment I knew my purpose in life. Everything lined up. The hardship of my youth, the people who showed me the value of service, and the woman who taught me the power of kindness. I finally understood exactly how that woman felt when she gave me the $350. I've now been on both sides."
From that moment on, Mendoza committed to a life of service. "This is my life's mission. To give."
That is not to say Mendoza has it easy. He accumulated $80,000 in student loans while pursuing his undergraduate degree.
Admirably, he still strives for higher education. He began graduate coursework for a master's degree in counseling at Wayland Baptist University, but stopped this year "because I was frightened looking at my debt." He knows he needs to return soon because when you start a graduate program, you have a certain amount of time to finish it or lose the credits.
He admits it's hard for him financially. Social work doesn't pay much.
Why, I ask, doesn't he stop giving away his time for a few years while he sorts out his college issues? Mendoza makes some money as a DJ on the weekends, which helps him chip away at his student loans, but he donates so much of his time to charity.
"I struggle, but other people's suffering is greater. I may not have the best possessions, but I'm still lucky to be comfortable. I want to share my blessings. I get way more from helping people," he explains.
His friends aren't surprised by his selfless nature. "He has always thought of everyone but himself," recalls Bautista. I remember when his father needed a vehicle, he just paid off his truck and gave it to his dad. He was struggling, but he still put his dad first. And he was only about 24 years old!"
I'm struck by Mendoza's humility. During our calls, he repeatedly said he wasn't interested in having attention on himself. In fact, he wanted to make sure to share his spotlight with the good people who inspire him, including the staff at Makalapa Elementary and Red Hill Elementary.
"I can't do much," he sighs, "but whatever I can do, it's something. I want to be part of the solution."
It is we who are blessed to have a person like this in our community.
Reach Michael Mendoza via djkurioushawaii.com or (808) 381-6494 cell.