Valerie is small, pretty, and confident as she poses for photos, and speaks in front of a gathering at Ponahawaiola, a residential program for men and women coming out of prison. She’s here today, partly for this interview, but also to share her story of struggle with current participants. She laughs as she shares, “You might think I look like I have it together now, but I looked like this when I was dealing drugs. I really didn’t look much different. I thought I had it all working for me, that I was just doing a job. I thought it was all about me. But know I know I was actually destroying lives…I was messing with families…not just my own. ”
She tells me later that she had been placed in a school for troubled kids when she was 14 and that she had a really low self esteem. “I come from a family of 8 in Kona, and I was the black sheep…stupid. So I lived by that label. I wanted to be recognized so I became a drug dealer.” Valerie constantly refers to her drug abuse as her “insanity”. “I got pregnant, but lost him (to foster care) at six months. He was living in an incubator in the hospital as I continued my insanity…and I thought everything was normal because he was being taken care of”. She dealt drugs in Kona, but was warned by a classmate who was a police officer. “He told me to clean up my act, that he was trying to help me, that I had to stop. But I didn’t think I would get caught. But I did. When I went to court, my whole family was in the court. To see my mom at age 72, and to see my son with his head down. “ she stops for a moment holding back tears, “I realize that I have not just hurt myself, but I’ve hurt my family and my community…. They never even let me kiss my family goodbye. That’s when reality hit.”
She talks about sitting in jail, one year and then two years, and how the chaplin came in one day and brought a HOPE brochure, (then called OSM), saying “Here’s a new beginning…a new source of life” Valerie was serving a 3 year and 6 month prison term in Oahu at the women’s prison. When she was released from jail, she was accepted into HOPE Service’s Ponahawaiola residential program. “This program gave me the tools and the guidance including love and support. They taught me to believe in myself. All of the knowledge and education that I received from Ponahawaiola and the activities with the P.I.L.R. participants has helped me to be successful today.”
Valerie is now a full time college student, and a part time deep fry cook at New China Restaurant in Hilo. She is working on a relationship and reunification with her son Kawena.