KAPAA — The last image Laura Miyashiro remembers seeing is her mother’s face before darkness consumed her vision.
As blindness, breast cancer and mental illness threatened to take over the Kapaa resident’s life, Miyashiro knew she wanted to live. So she fought back the best way she knew how: doing meaningful work for those around her.
“To me, meaningful work is work you do (for others), that’s only meaningful if you help other people,” she said.
Growing up in the town of Kapahi with her parents, sister and brother, Miyashiro learned the value of hard work through their example.
“I had a fabulous childhood,” she said. “I liked working together with my family because my father was the kind of person he was. He made work fun. My sister had polio; my brother, well, he was good at everything; and me, I was kind of slow but I was strong.”
Miyashiro said the best part of her childhood was the “work” done by her and her brother: creating makeshift shelters and piling up rocks. “When you play, it’s something that is work,” she said.
Miyashiro began her first job during summer breaks in high school at a cannery, where she worked night shifts. Although her job kept her up late, she still got up early to make her little brother’s lunch.
Unfortunately, it was during her work at the cannery that Miyashiro discovered she suffered from depression, in 1967.
“Mental illness causes suffering,” Miyashiro wrote in a letter to The Garden Island. “Those who have mental illness suffer tremendously. Meaningful work alleviates suffering. I didn’t consciously know this but I knew that work made me feel good.”
Miyashiro attempted to attend Kauai Community College but was hospitalized at Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital instead.
Even hospitalized, Miyashiro knew that she wanted to continue working, so she made the effort to push patients in their wheelchairs during their social activities.
She fought to attend classes at KCC through a day pass from the hospital, and worked at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Wailua Homesteads and Zippy’s.
Unfortunately, the medication Miyashiro was taking ultimately caused more harm than good, and damaged her body’s nervous system. Miyashiro was hospitalized again at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe.
However, in 1993, Miyashiro found happiness when she met her second family and home at Friendship House in Kapaa. There, she found that the organization’s philosophy on hard work clicked with her own.
It was also during her stay at Friendship House that Miyashiro likened her treatment to the poem “The Touch of Master’s Hand,” which tells the story of an auctioneer seeking bids for an old, dusty violin.
Although no one wants the instrument at first, an old man comes up and begins to play it. After hearing its beautiful song, the value of the violin goes up — all because of the touch of the master’s hands.
“That’s kind of like what we are here. People who the world thinks are not worth much, we can’t do much, and then we come here and these two people here, or the staff, they know how to work with us, play with us. Then when we’re actually shown to the world, we’re actually worth something,” she said.
Friendship House also helped Miyashiro continue her passion for work by getting her a job at Pono Cleaners.
However, as Miyashiro began to bond with her new friends and new job, tragedy stuck again — she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.
“I do feel like I live a good life and if death comes, it’s alright,” she said.
Miyashiro said that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she felt the fear of death for the first time. Although she was afraid, Miyashiro decided to fight. And just as she never gave up on herself, her new friends never gave up on her, either.
“I was with Laura when she had to tell her supervisor that she needed time off for treatment and her supervisor was an amazing man, very kind,’” said Friendship House staff member Iris Ijima. “He told Laura, ‘Don’t worry about work, this is your life we’re talking about,’ and Laura’s comment back to him was ‘But work is my life.’”
Miyashiro also continued to think of others, even after surgery, according to Ijima.
As she was wheeled back to her room in the hospital, Miyashiro saw Ijima and asked for her bag which was filled with M&Ms. Miyashiro said she wanted to offer something to those who would come to visit her, which shocked her friend.
As the vocational coordinator of Friendship House, Dave Jordan has also witnessed Miyashiro’s humanitarianism and has been impressed by her determination.
“Laura is the one here who has the greatest attitude,” Jordan said. “I mean, we all have good attitudes, but Laura stands out. I think Laura is just an inspiration to us.”
Miyashiro also continued to inspire others when she was diagnosed with blindness in 2012 and could no longer work at Pono Cleaners.
“The hardest part was when I went to work to see if I could work and I found out that I couldn’t, and I told my boss, I gotta quit,” she said. “I was hoping to have my sight at least until I reached Social Security age.”
Despite her setbacks, Miyashiro has never given up and continues to do what she loves: helping out at Friendship House by wiping down tables, cleaning dishes and cooking.
“God says ‘Do good work.’ Good work is what our life is made up of,” she wrote. “It helps to alleviate suffering because when you’re doing work, you’re able to say ‘Hey, I did that!’ You’re able to say, ‘I can do this,’ or ‘I did this myself.’ It’s a good feeling.”