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The Unsinkable Laura Miyashiro

Friendship House members with Laura Miyashiro (center) and staff Iris Ijima (far left) and Dave Jordan (fourth from left). The organization provides services for those who are afflicted with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression

Friendship House members with Laura Miyashiro (center) and staff Iris Ijima (far left) and Dave
Jordan (fourth from left).
The organization provides services for those who are afflicted with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. Photo by Coco Zickos

Laura Miyashiro is a bright reminder that quality of life is all about attitude. She has struggled with mental illness since childhood, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and, more recently, blindness. Yet she manages to keep smiling.

“She is one of those rare people who, if we are lucky enough to come in contact with during our lives, changes how we choose to endure and thrive in the face of adversity,” says Dave Jordan, vocational coordinator at the state Department of Health’s Friendship House, a clubhouse psychiatric rehabilitation program that provides mental health services to adults afflicted with various illnesses, such as schizophrenia and depression.

“Whenever I’m having a bad day, I think about Laura and then remember that it’s all in your attitude,” says Iris Ijima, who also is on staff at Friendship House.

Miyashiro, who grew up on Kauai and graduated from Kapaa High School, doesn’t think there’s any other way to be. She maintains a positive spirit because, she says, “There’s nothing else to do.”

She wasn’t officially diagnosed with mental illness until her junior year of high school. She was working the midnight shift at one of the local canneries, an exhausting gig she had a hard time coping with. She learned she was suffering from depression, but the medication prescribed to her ended up exacerbating other issues that are products of her schizoaffective disorder. Still, her adversities didn’t stop her from attending school at Pacific University in Oregon for a year (although she preferred working in the cafeteria to taking classes),

and returning home to study at Kauai Community College.

Her illness took a turn for the worse though, and this time she had to be hospitalized at Samuel Mahelona Memorial.

Life started looking up for her, however, when she acquired a job at the agricultural research station as a janitorial technician, and at Zippy’s on weekends.

“I was really happy,” she remembers. “The work was good and my co-workers were all wonderful to me.”

Laura Miyashiro has been a member of Friendship House for some 20 years and has always managed to have a good time and laugh despite suffering from many affl ictions. Photo courtesy Friendship House

Laura Miyashiro has been a member of Friendship House for some 20 years and has always managed to have a good time and laugh despite suffering from many affl ictions. Photo courtesy Friendship House

In fact, it always has been work that has provided the motivation she needs to get through every day despite her adversities. She joined Friendship House in 1993 and her life has improved ever since. The organization helped her obtain several jobs through its Transitional Employment Program that connects with local businesses like Kauai Marriott Resort and Big Save to help provide several months of gainful employment to Friendship House. Members like Miyashiro have a place to develop social and employment skills – through the work-placement program or by lending a hand at the clubhouse with tasks such as creating newsletters and cooking. Supplying meaningful work, whether at the clubhouse or outside of it, reduces members’ distress.

“When you work, you have to concentrate on doing the job,” she says. “That helps alleviate a lot of the suffering you normally have if you have nothing to do.”

After several years of experience through the program, she eventually landed a job at Pono Cleaners.

“I always knew that good work made me feel good about myself — it’s like breathing,” she says. “Meaningful work helps us feel accepted, needed and valued. It gives us a sense of purpose.”

Even though Miyashiro no longer can work since her breast cancer diagnosis and the loss of her eyesight because of unknown health complications, she insists upon helping out around Friendship House, doing various tasks such as cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes. She even manages to volunteer her time at St. Catherine Food Pantry. She is a force to be reckoned with who, instead of feeling sorry for herself, continues to find something positive about her situation.

“You actually get to see things that other people miss, including the love that people give to others,” she says regarding her blindness.

“Laura has had to climb many mountains throughout her life,” says Ijima. “Through it all she has held on to her sense of humor, her optimism and her drive to continue to work. Nothing stops this woman.”

Miyashiro is a perfect example of the great things the clubhouse does for its members and how it helps those who struggle with mental illness find their place in the world.

Miyashiro keeps a positive attitude and continues to help out around Friendship House, including working on a computer specifi cally designed for those who are blind

Miyashiro keeps a positive attitude and continues to help out around Friendship House, including working on a computer specifi cally designed for those who are blind

“Laura embodies the unbreakable, courageous spirit of our members at Friendship House who battle the difficult aspects of mental illness and manage to inspire and shine on through their lives,” says Jordan.

Miyashiro, like so many other clubhouse members, thinks it’s a great day just because she gets to do something productive like washing dishes.

“She’s just so full of appreciation for everything in her life,” says Ijima. “She does things for the joy of doing them and not for any pat on the back or to toot her own horn.”

Just because people are afflicted with mental illness doesn’t mean they aren’t a productive part of society and can’t have a positive influence on others.

“She doesn’t realize how powerful and impactful she is on other people,” says Jordan.

To learn more about Friendship House, call 821-4480.

cocomidweek@gmail.com

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