Helping a student overcome adversity and succeed as an adult is one of the biggest dreams for educators.
Success sometimes happens right after students graduate; other times, it takes years. For Susan Minami-Sato and Dee Yamane, they never knew what came of former student Jowana Lobendahn, who had a troubled history at Washington Middle and Kaimuki High in the 1990s.
Both Minami-Sato and Yamane have since retired from the Department and were reunited with the 31-year-old Lobendahn at the encouragement of current Washington Middle counselor Rosie Ramiro. At the reunion, Lobendahn thanked them personally for giving her the spark she needed to put her life back together.
Although she was born in Hawaii, Lobendahn’s parents moved the family to Euless, Texas, because of its large Polynesian population. When she was 4, her father murdered her mother and killed himself. A young Jowana and her brother were left in the care of other family members, but she struggled to find role models in her life, and later turned to gangs to fill that void. Wanting to be far from the gang lifestyle, her family moved once again – this time to Fiji. Lobendahn says Fiji was “the most beautiful place I had seen,” and she was motivated to make a change. However, her entire family couldn’t be granted visas, so they moved back to the United States and landed in Hawaii.
At 12, she enrolled at Washington Middle, but still struggled to find her place in life. She started a gang and got into trouble, which landed her in the vice principal’s office. It was there that she remembers building a respect and love for then vice principal Susan Minami-Sato, for being “a non-judgmental VP.”
“She used to come to the office all the time,” says Minami-Sato. “But I knew she was bright, she just didn’t have the right direction.”
Eventually, Lobendahn made it to Kaimuki High, and that’s where she met Yamane, who at that time was a counselor for kids enrolled in a special motivation class to get them on the right track.
“I remember chasing the kids all across campus… trying to get them back in class,” says Yamane.
Lobendahn continued to struggle with gangs, and fell into drinking and doing drugs. That led to her dropping out of high school and becoming homeless. By then, Yamane had taken a teaching position, but recalls how the troubled Lobendahn would turn to her. “I honestly don’t remember any other administrator at that school except Mrs. Yamane,” said Lobendahn.
The watershed moment came in 2000 when Yamane sat Lobendahn down at the Kaimuki Community School for Adults. “I told her, ‘you are going to take this test and pass it; and if not, you are going to owe me 50 bucks!’”
That was the General Educational Development (GED) test, and Lobendahn passed it.
“I was really mean to her,” Yamane recalls. “But I call it tough love.”
It wasn’t until a few years after that Lobendahn finally got clean and sober, and began getting jobs. Today, she has a place of her own and is studying at Kapiolani Community College with hopes of becoming a social worker. She also has bigger aspirations of one day owning a farm where she can offer a program to foster children.
She also works with the Afterschool All-Stars at Washington Middle, a program that allows her to share her personal story with juveniles who may be facing the same struggles she once did. Washington Middle Principal Michael Harano said the program went through several coordinators before finding Lobendahn three years ago. Lobendahn had been doing volunteer work at Kalakaua Middle, when Washington’s Afterschool All-Stars came calling.
“When I stepped foot on the Washington campus, I really felt like I was finally at home.”