Credit Mel Ponder Photography

Credit Mel Ponder Photography

Each day I show up to work as a barista at Kona Kai Coffee in Tukwila, is another day for which I am grateful. Here in this bright, airy space, the normal conversations I have with my customers – a mix of students, local workers and library patrons — inspire me and give me hope.”

The last 12 years of my life have not been especially hopeful, much of it spent on a roller coaster of drug and alcohol dependency.

But over the last few months at Kona Kai, I’ve been on a steady path to reclaim and rebuild my life – one day at a time. It required me to completely walk away from my old lifestyle, leaving behind toxic relationships that were making it impossible for me to heal.

For the first time, I’m enrolled in therapy to address the unrelenting trauma that I experienced in my life and I’m working hard to regain custody this month of my 5-year-old little girl, which I lost years ago as my life spiraled down this dark path.

The job is part of my accountability. It’s giving me my identity back. It’s giving me my independence back. It’s not just a second chance for me, but for many of the Kona Kai workers who have faced adversities in their lives – homelessness, chemical dependency or been involved in the criminal justice system.

And in a year when the nonprofit organization has changed leadership and formed a new partnership with Catalyst Kitchens (Fare Start), it is experiencing its own second chance.

The story of my life before Kona Kai is one that I seldom tell. I’m trying to change that now because I believe that in sharing it I might be able to help others facing similar challenges.

I was raised the youngest of three girls in a middle-class home in Bonney Lake. I’ll be honest: I was a rebellious kid. I began drinking and using drugs when I was still in high school.

By the time I was 16, I was a full-blown alcoholic. By 17, I was using methamphetamines and cocaine on a regular basis.

I graduated from high school on schedule, though to this day I struggle to understand how. Plans for college were put on indefinite hold as I immediately began working. I’ve always liked working, making money. I would come to learn later that it was just another form of addition.

I moved out of my parents’ home and on my own. I worked hard and partied just as hard. When I was 22, I met a guy, 14 years older, and for the next five years my life became a living hell as I was subjected to an endless cycle of domestic abuse. I lost contact with my family and friends as I receded deeper into hopelessness. Drugs became my way of coping.

Looking back now, I know I had the classic symptoms of a domestic violence victim, coming back to my tormentor each time, believing he could and would change. He never did.

Eight years ago, I entered my first in-patient treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. It would be the first of many as I tried over and over to end the vices controlling my life.

During a short period of sobriety, while working at a major retailer, I met the man who would become the father of my daughter.

I met him around a time when I had lost my grandfather. He was a heavy drinker and coupled with the loss and grief I was feeling, I was back to using again. It was easy to go back to what I knew best.

When I learned that I was pregnant, I got myself clean. But I began using again two months after the baby was born as a way to deal with the pain, adding heroin to my buffet of drugs. I liked how it numbed not just the pain I was feeling but calmed the turmoil in my mind.

When my daughter was 6 months old, Child Protective Service removed her from my care. It would not be the last time. She went to live with my older sister while I tried again – and failed -- to clean myself up. My picture-perfect world, with the white picket fence, was being stripped from me. This was more like skid row.

Time and time again, my stints in drug treatment were followed by relapse into what was familiar. I entered court-mandated programs that required counseling and discipline. It was really checking off what the state and the courts wanted. I went to counseling because it was required.

When you live a lifestyle of drug dependency, there are moments that stay with you, that act as mile-markers on your wretched journey of self-destruction. Mine came one day when I was at a McDonald’s restaurant with my daughter ordering food, while her father waited outside in the car. The next thing I remember, the police were at my side questioning me. I still have no idea what prompted the restaurant employees to call them; I was that high. But I still hold the unshakable memory of my sweet child, at age 3, being driven away in the back of a police car.

My daughter remembers it, too.

More than anything I wanted to get back on my feet. And I wanted to get my daughter back.

In March this year, I entered treatment once again after the court-appointed team I was working with told me that if I stayed on the path I was on, I’d never accomplish that goal. I needed to reach deep within myself to find the power to fix me. I had hit rock bottom and I told myself that I needed to do everything completely opposite of what I’d done in the past before if I were to regain control of my life.

As a result of my court mandated program, I was forbidden from indulging in that other addition: work. So when I noticed a job opening at Kona Kai, I had to convince the program team to allow me to take it.

It has been an important part of my long road back. I realized that I had been living with one foot in and one foot out of a lifestyle that always succeeded in pulling down. I 100 percent walked away from it. I left relationships I had been afraid to leave because I knew if I stayed in them, things would never change. I began working on me and depending on me -- not men -- to make me happy.

For the first time, I attend regular therapy sessions to address the years of trauma. And I believe they’re working.

Kona Kai gave me a chance and that trust is there. It works both ways. I get to be part of the transformation of this organization.

I love the mission of Kona Kai, working with young people and those experiencing homelessness or at risk of being homeless. It provides a chance for people like me to acquire basic skills. I know how to work in the back kitchen. I know how to hold a knife the right way so I don’t cut my finger off. I can work a register. Count money the right way.

As I prepare to take my daughter back, I have some big ideas. I want to be a motivational speaker, to share my story with others so that it might help inspire those with similar struggles.

I want the system – police officers and court officials -- to understand the mental health aspects of chemical dependency they so often overlook. I want to organize community forums to build dialogue between police and the people they serve. And long term, I want to start a nonprofit and use my peer-support training and certification to provide awareness around domestic violence and the resources available to help victims.

And one day, I’ll write a book about this journey.