As a domestic violence survivor, recovering alcoholic and former drug addict, Maui native Michele Navarro Ishiki wondered why she would be recruited to run as Mrs. Kaneohe 2014 in the Mrs. Hawaii America program.
She was told her background, including periods of homelessness and incarceration, was part of the reason she should be in the pageant celebrating married women and their contributions.
"I have been told there's never been a story like mine," said Ishiki, a mother of five who turns 44 this month. "I'm the oldest contestant. I have the most kids and most tattoos.
Maui native Michele Navarro Ishiki will compete in next month’s Mrs. Hawaii pageant.
Photo via Michele Navarro Ishiki
"I was told the pageant needed me more than I needed it."
After praying over it, Ishiki said she decided to run as a way of letting other survivors of domestic violence and alcohol and drug addiction know "there's life after the devastation."
"I believe that if I can be that voice for others, that's what this is all about for me - raising awareness," she said. "If I can just help one person, then it will be worth it for me."
As a prelude to the pageant in May, Ishiki's friends on Maui are hosting a free no-alcohol aloha event for her from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Paia Community Center. Last month, a pasteles sale on Maui was a "major success" toward helping with pageant expenses, Ishiki said.
"I just want to thank Maui for the love and support," she said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have done this on my own."
Ishiki, a 1988 Maui High School graduate, has many friends and relatives on Maui, including her parents, Rodney Sr. and Loraine Navarro, who live in the same house where she grew up in Paia.
She moved to Kaneohe after her April 2007 marriage to Jared Ishiki, an electrician whose family has roots in the Windward Oahu community. "This island has been very gracious to me," she said.
She met her future husband on Maui in 1999, when he was working as a cook and living in Haiku and she was struggling with drug addiction that began with alcohol at age 22, cocaine at 24 and crystal methamphetamine at 25.
"Eventually, you become hard to love, and I had to leave my home because of the destruction of the use," she said. "I was homeless, living out of my car. That's one of the perils of crystal methamphetamine. It takes everything."
One night, when she had nowhere to sleep, a mutual friend introduced them.
"I ended up on his doorstep. He opened up his door and allowed me to stay," she said. "I was about 90 pounds. I didn't have the will to live anymore. It didn't make sense for me. I didn't have a reason. Even if I had my children, I didn't have custody of them. When you're a mother and you don't have custody of your children, it almost depletes you of every hope that you have to live."
Ishiki said her future husband, who wasn't a drug user, motivated her to make changes.
"It was just straight-up friendship and love and encouragement," she said. "He never pushed me to stop using drugs, but he did point me in the direction of what was important. He reinforced the importance of being a mom again.
"I started to see the light. I found God, ironically enough, with him.
"Every time I tell this story, I cry. He basically loved me back to life. I learned how to love myself again. That's his nature. When he invests in people, you become rich."
One day, after partying and crashing for three days, Ishiki said she got up in jail "and I realized he was what I wanted, it was that love that I wanted."
"I had to figure out a way to keep him," she said. "He was a big motivating factor for me, along with my children."
She went into treatment.
For the past 10 years, Ishiki has worked in the treatment field in the jail and prison system. Currently, she's an instructor in the education department working with inmates at Halawa Correctional Center on Oahu.
She said the job has exceeded her early goal of becoming a teacher. "Not only do I get to help teach people, but I get to watch their lives transform," she said.
"Very seldom do I disclose anything of my background because helping people get better is never about me. It's all about them. If they ask, I tell," she said. "What I did to recover doesn't mean that that's going to work for the next person. Everybody finds their path."
Ishiki is certified by the state and internationally as a substance abuse counselor. Last year, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work from the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She plans to return to school to get a master's degree, while also being active in her children's schooling.
Ishiki credits their late father, his family and her family for the upbringing of her older sons - Sean, 25, and Beau, 24, who is in Afghanistan on his second deployment with the Army National Guard.
Her other three children are Joshua, 18, Jayed, 13, and Jadon, 4.
"My life is crazy, but I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
Eventually, she would like to return to Maui and open a treatment program.
Ishiki is among nine contestants statewide in the Hawaii pageant, which includes swimsuit, evening gown and interview portions. The interview is the biggest part, she said.
Pageant donations for Ishiki can be mailed to her at P.O. Box 1234, Kaneohe 96744 or sent through PayPal at email@example.com.
Ishiki said she plans to donate a portion of any leftover money to Hina Mauka, which provides addiction treatment. She also plans to make a personal donation to Women Helping Women, where she sought refuge from abusive relationships in the early 1990s. "I needed to run away and that was the one place, no questions asked," she said. "It's an amazing organization."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.