There was pomp and circumstance in Waianae for some special graduates who had to learn their lessons the hard way. Thursday's commencement ushers in a new life that's clean and sober.
For Nadine Leong, a family-filled walk would have been impossible just a few months ago. "Before, they used to tell me, 'Mom, it's better if you die'. It is, because I was so hooked on the batu, the ice, is unreal. I promise."
After 34 years on either crystal meth, pot, alcohol or all three, her breaking point came last year when she passed out under a grade school jungle gym. "This kid was waking me up, and she said, 'Lady, lady', and I said, 'What?!' And she said, 'We've got school'. Right then and there, I just realized, what the hell am I doing over there?"
That's when the 45 year old checked herself into Ho'omau Ke Ola - a non-profit, drug treatment program unique to the islands. It incorporates Hawaiian culture with mainstream, 12-step recovery.
"The spiritual part of our culture is what heals - so our staff, we're more than just therapists, in the Western sense, but we're healers," says Patti Isaacs, Ho'omau Ke Ola's Executive Director.
They hula. They chant. They talk story and malama aina - care for the land - as the old Hawaiians used to do. The program is celebrating its 25 year milestone. Robert Hetzel - who was homeless and hooked on ice for a decade - graduated from the program last year. He's now a boardmember.
"It just makes me feel so good that I'm not the only one that is finally getting it, is finally moving on in life," says Hetzel.
These graduates know they "have" to leave their old ways behind - because theirs is a lifelong lesson in sheer survival.