Putting On A B.R.A.V.E. Face

(From left) Skye Antonio, Francisco Mawae, Zoey Corpuz, Victoria Zembik, Alora Amina, Joshua Takara, Mahealani Sims-Tulba, Jonah Zembik, Jarren Corpuz, Lilynoe Mawae, Vincent Takara, Kiana Lambot, Natalie Abrigado and Sophia Bertram. PHOTO BY LAWRENCE TABUDLO

Some people discover their life’s calling in early adulthood. Others, try as they might, never really find their path. And every now and then, a few realize their mission while still in their adolescence.

Mahealani Sims-Tulba belongs in the latter group. As the daughter of a local politician and celebrity (her father is Honolulu City Councilman Augusto “Augie T” Tulba, who burst on the scene as a comedian and radio personality in the ’90s), she found her purpose early on — age 13, to be exact — believing that her life was to be lived in service to others.

“I knew even back then that I wanted to do good things for people,” says Sims-Tulba, now 23. “I saw my dad do it as he put smiles on people’s faces, and they would always say, ‘Thank you so much for everything you do for our community.’

Mahealani Sims-Tulba took a negative experience in pageantry and turned it into a positive anti-bullying movement. PHOTO COURTESY MAHEALANI SIMS-TULBA

“I wanted to be just like that.”

So, the very determined youngster with the organically sunny disposition put on her game face and got started. After writing and illustrating a children’s book called It’s Okay To Be Different in 2012, Sims-Tulba launched B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i the following year, a nonprofit dedicated to helping youth combat bullying. From the get-go, the organization with the acronym that stands for “Be Respectful And Value Everyone,” has resonated with thousands of youth across the state by promoting “kindness and respectfulness, goal-setting, personal development and motivation.”

“It helped that I was still a child and I could connect with them,” says the nonprofit’s founder and CEO when recalling her early days of winning over crowds of youth. “Growing up at school, we’d have speakers come and talk to us all the time, but a lot of the kids wouldn’t listen because it was boring, and they didn’t really care what the adults were saying.

Mahealani Sims-Tulba reads excerpts from her children’s book It’s Okay To Be Different to a youngster PHOTO COURTESY MAHEALANI SIMS-TULBA

“But when you’re a kid listening to another kid talk, you listen. You listen to your friends, you listen to your peers — because you’re equal.”

Maybe most importantly, the messages had an impact because they were coming from someone who was a victim of bullying herself. (More on this later.)

In its 10th year, B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i remains a force in bringing greater anti-bullying awareness to students through its state Department of Education-certified school programs, and beyond. Last month, for example, the nonprofit received good news when Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi signed Bill 52 — which makes bullying illegal on city property and within city programs — into law.

Appearing with Grace Kennedy, at left, at the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards PHOTO COURTESY MAHEALANI SIMS-TULBA

The government’s action is “a big deal” for Sims-Tulba and her organization, in part because it validates what she and her supporters have been fighting for over the last decade.

“When we first started B.R.A.V.E., we were told that bullying would not even be considered for a law for at least 10 years — and that was in 2013. Back then, we were like, ‘Man, that’s so long from now!’” she recalls.

“But we get it. It’s been 10 years and here we are, and now we understand that it takes time to advocate; it takes time for people to see that bullying is an issue, and that it needs to be addressed.”

Holding court with Miss American Scholar queens at a B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i community activity. PHOTO COURTESY MAHEALANI SIMS-TULBA

Before Sims-Tulba chose her path in life, all she wanted was a piece of the pageantry world. At the time, her best friend in elementary school was involved in a contest and the allure of wearing a dress and tiara began to pique her interest, too.

“My friend looked really pretty and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to try that! I want to stand on the stage and look pretty!’” she explains. “That sounds really bad now, but at the time I really didn’t know anything about pageantry other than I wanted to try it.”

Yet what should have been a joyous decision soon turned into a nightmare. According to Sims-Tulba, her best friend immediately unleashed a campaign of put-downs against her with the intent of driving the then 10-year-old from an upcoming competition.

“There were a lot of mean words said directly to me and also said indirectly … and rumors were spread,” explains Sims-Tulba. “They’d tell me, ‘You’re not pretty enough to be in a pageant. You’re not smart enough to be in a pageant. You’re too fat to be in a pageant.’

“It was a lot harder as a child because you don’t really expect your best friend to do that to you, let alone gather up all her other friends and have them all gang up on you over something that has nothing to do with them.”

The insults had a noticeable impact on Sims-Tulba. Her smile disappeared. Her grades dropped. She stopped participating in activities she once loved to do. She even withdrew from loved ones while sinking deeper into despair.

“I was that kid who was afraid to speak up. I didn’t tell my parents when I got bullied; I kept it quiet from them for a long time,” she remembers. “But I’m really fortunate that my mom (Kimberly) was able to catch it and notice that things were not right with me. She was insistent and persistent enough to keep pestering me about it.”

It’s said that time heals all wounds, but in Sims-Tulba’s case, the emotional trauma and resulting scars still seem fresh.

“Those things, yeah, they were said to me when I was 10 years old, but they don’t just go away. It sticks with you,” she explains. “Sometimes you look in the mirror and you hear those things that were said to you … that creeping voice in your head that’s telling you, ‘Well, maybe they were right,’ and it just puts you in a bad mood.”

Despite the less-than-auspicious start to her pageantry career, Sims-Tulba has actually found success within the community over the years. Aside from creating the community-service based organization Miss American Scholar, the highly decorated young adult has walked off with her share of crowns, including being named 2020 Miss Aloha Latina, 2016 Miss Hawai‘i US Jr. Teen and 2014 Miss Jr. T.E.E.N. Hawai‘i.

Along the way, she’s also been honored with The Diana Award, named after Princess Diana and given to an outstanding youth who helps improve the lives of others. This recognition was undoubtedly based in part on her previous work with the homeless in Kaka‘ako. She says that providing such service afforded her greater perspective on how others cope each day.

“I went to private school my whole life and I come from a pretty fortunate family, so I’ve never seen people living like that before,” she says about her first experience of feeding and interacting with the homeless. “I mean this is kind of embarrassing, but I didn’t even know public school was free until I was like 12. I grew up very fortunate and seeing people (struggle) really affected me, and made me want to dedicate my life to helping.”

Beyond the pageants, Sims-Tulba finds time to dabble in another passion of hers: music. Several years ago, the gifted singer dropped the single Let Me Down Easy, and promises to release an EP in the near future.

“It will either be out later this year or by the beginning of next year,” she notes. “We’re still working on it. We’re trying to go in a more K-pop-inspired direction.

“It’s going to be very exciting.”

Just as thrilling will be where she leads her organization in the months ahead. On the horizon is the creation of B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i Leadership Academy, an after-school mentoring program “where we help build the leaders of tomorrow,” as well as the launch of the B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i Kids Award, a monthly honor that recognizes and rewards an individual or organization with a cash scholarship for exemplary work performed in the community.

For Sims-Tulba, the opportunity to continue growing her nonprofit while staying true to her life’s calling is all rather satisfying.

“We started off really small, so there’s a lot to be proud of. A lot of it has been just me, my mom and my dad. We’re the backbone of B.R.A.V.E.,” she mentions. “But there’s been so many other people who have come along the way and we’ve been able to really have great supporters that we’re really thankful for.

“I’m just really proud of the family we’ve been able to create. All of us have one goal, and our goal is to give back and make a difference. I’m proud to say we’ve been able to do that.”