When Nezlyn Kealoha looks in the mirror, she sees a bold woman. Someone with strength and courage.
She doesn’t see the girl that she used to be. The one who was an addict. The one who attacked people and robbed them at gun point and went to prison. A girl who was deeply unhappy and wanted to make everyone else feel her pain.
That Nezlyn is gone.
Today, her reflection holds a year of growth and healing. A year of getting selfish to become truly selfless.
Kealoha has spent the past year at Fernhurst, a furlough and transitional housing facility run by YWCA O'ahu. Fernhurst provides women with shelter and safety after leaving the harsh prison environment. It helps them regain a sense of self and a connection to community.
“It’s really dramatic, but they saved my life,” says Kealoha. “This whole journey I’ve been on—going to prison, then doing the program and coming here—it was just like I needed it. I really needed it. And it’s a part of me now. Everything I’ve learned is part of me.”
Kealoha talks about her former self in the third person.
That girl made mistakes born from tragedy. Her grandfather molested her for years and she witnessed her father’s suicide. She got addicted to drugs at age 11 and ran away from home.
“For the first two years in my drug addiction, I could use those things as an excuse and after that, it had become my choice,” says Kealoha. “I chose to stay out there and I chose to steal. I chose to commit crime and I chose to hurt people.”
Her choices caught up with her and she went to prison. Two years into her sentence, her world shifted under her. Her sister had a baby who died of sudden infant death syndrome. She never got the chance to meet her nephew or be there for her sister. It destroyed Kealoha.
From that day forward, she decided to make every day a step toward saving her life. She finally stopped fighting and kicked her drug habit. She asked to go to Fernhurst.
“I’m not going to let the monsters or the demons of my past control what I become in the future,” she says.
The woman within
When she got to Fernhurst, Kealoha was afraid. She didn’t want to go out. She didn’t want to do anything.
She slept for the better part of seven days.
“I was afraid and I didn’t wanna admit it to no one,” says Kealoha. “Then they forced me to come down to this little group that we were having and I just shared and I cried my little face off.”
The women at Fernhurst let her pull down her barriers and show her real self. Fears and all. She’d found a community that supported her unconditionally.
“Coming here makes you realize that you wanna be a woman again,” says Kealoha. “In prison, you’re just a kid. You’re just a kid with a whole bunch of kids in a playground.”
For Kealoha, being a woman means life, happiness, success. It means dressing the way she wants to and facing herself in the mirror.
There are no mirrors in prison, which Kealoha says is just fine because the inmates are disgusted with life. But the large bathroom mirrors at Fernhurst didn’t give her much of a choice.
Seeing herself was the beginning of the new Nezlyn.
She threw herself into activities like residential group meetings, art, and cooking, which she loves. She started making her own poi mochi. She gained the confidence to lead a gardening group—weeding, watering, and feeding fish.
“My stepdad’s been in landscaping his whole life,” says Kealoha. “That was a way for me to reconnect with myself, the part of me I used to be that I had forgotten.”
With the help of Fernhurst and the supportive women there, Kealoha’s confidence continued to grow. She landed her first job on the spot and now works two jobs that she loves, cooking and waitressing. Ever ambitious, she hopes to go back to school soon to become a social worker so she can help others.
She’ll always remember the girl she used to be.
“She’s walked with me all along this way. She’ll change, too. She will. And then my past won’t haunt me.”