James and Nanea were high school sweethearts back in Hawaii. Nanea became pregnant her senior year of high school and had to drop out because of a problem pregnancy, spending most of her time in the hospital. She & James were married just before the baby was born, a joyous event in their lives, even though they knew going in they would face tremendous difficulties. Their baby boy was born with Down’s Syndrome and two holes in his heart – something they learned during the pregnancy and spent a great deal of time and attention learning how to care for. They’ve never shied away from trouble, but embraced it with hearts of gold and all the strength they could muster.
The baby needed extensive medical intervention and although James was employed and had insurance, they fought with the insurance company extensively to provide even the most severely needed help, such as oxygen. One day when Nanea was out fighting for her son, Dad stayed home and the unthinkable happened – the much needed oxygen didn’t arrive in time and the tiny 3-month-old died. That horrific loss was more than the loving couple could bear, but it would only be the start of years of battles, heartache and pain.
James blamed himself for his son’s death and turned to drugs to try and cope. Crystal Meth took control of his life and he began a downward spiral. Nanea, who had been raised in a loving family, didn’t recognize the signs of drug abuse because she’d never been exposed to it, and did all she could to help her husband overcome his grief while coping with her own gut-wrenching loss.
Over the years, James and Nanea had five more children. James’ drug addiction caused him to lose his job and wander in and out of his struggling family’s life. Nanea was left a single mom to care for her young children – she held two jobs, didn’t qualify for any welfare or other assistance because of those jobs and was unwilling to risk her family’s security by quitting to get assistance. After the birth of her youngest son, Nanea had enough and told her husband she could no longer support the kids AND him – it was time to make a choice between his drug habit and his family. That ultimatum finally caused him to seek treatment and he successfully went through rehab a few months later. But he knew the temptation would be too great going back to the streets of Hawaii and he decided to move to Green Bay, Wisconsin where a friend had moved 5 years earlier and successfully broke a substance addiction of his own. James moved here, found a job and a home for the family and then sent for Nanea and the kids.
Things were going well, for a while, but the company that hired James never came through on a promised wage increase; Nanea couldn’t work because with no family in town, they couldn’t afford childcare. Things again started going downhill. James’ job provided just enough to cover the rent, but the couple couldn’t pay it all at once. The landlord let them make two installments each month, but that ended when the lease came up for renewal. They were given 14 days to move out, and the family found themselves homeless even though James was still employed.
They camped for a while, telling the kids it was an “adventure,” and then moved into their van parked at a friend’s house. Nanea was very creative in making the best of a bad situation – she’d feed the kids around a “campfire,” then use the friend’s bathroom to bathe and wash the kids up each night. They’d pull mattresses out of storage each evening and swap those for the seats in the van. Nanea would drive James to work each morning at 4 a.m., drive to the school’s parking lot to let the kids get as much sleep as possible, then drive to a nearby gas station to use a microwave to make the kids a hot breakfast and get them ready for school, then would take care of the younger ones until work and school ended and she started the whole routine all over again. As summer turned in to fall and winter approached, they knew they could not continue, but were reluctant to seek outside help fearing the children would be taken away from them – that was something neither of them was willing to face.
Finally, they got connected with Freedom House. James found a better paying job and Nanea started working on her GED. The family embraced the shelter, its residents and its programs with such a positive, can-do attitude despite their troubling circumstances that it began to have a tremendous positive influence on everyone in shelter. Job after job fell through, housing after housing opportunity fell through, but still the couple stayed positive and strong, determined to overcome and committed to each other and their children. In Nanea’s own words, “When I said through sickness or health until death do us part, I meant it!” Family back in Hawaii tried repeatedly to get them to move back, but both know James is still not strong enough to overcome the temptation that awaits there – they’ve made Green Bay their home, and they’re determined to make it work.
On Tuesday, November 23, 2011, James and Nanea and their five children were presented the keys to their brand new home, and became the first in the area to step directly from homelessness to homeownership, thanks to a partnership between Freedom House and Habitat for Humanity. “It means a lot to me and my family, especially my wife and kids,” said James Mawae. “I don’t know what to say other than we feel very blessed. All I wanted to do is put a roof over their heads.” James has since become one of Habitat’s top volunteers, helping out whenever he can to give to other families in need.
This couple knows how to overcome some of life’s biggest challenges, despite every opportunity to look out for themselves, they’ve reached out to help others and intend to continue doing so for the rest of their lives. Their story is one of heroism, tenacity and love – they’ve become two of Freedom House’s strongest mentors and continue to inspire, motivate and encourage others. They’ve already given back far more to this community than they ever “took” from it. They are the epitome of our community’s best role models.