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Kimberly Villegas holding her certificate
Kimberly Villegas

Cocaine addiction, sexual abuse, a robbery conviction and prison time as far away as Kentucky is an incredibly difficult journey to survive. But the story of Kimberly Villegas is not just a story of survival. It is a story of redemption and determination.

Kimberly Villegas

After decades of struggling with alcohol and drug abuse and time in and out of prisons, with the help of the University of Hawaiʻi at Maui College and its partners, Villegas has become a working Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) and is helping others to find sobriety.

“I come from a lineage of alcoholics and addicts. I wasn’t given the opportunity to learn the basics of life,” said Villegas, who was also sexually abused as a child. ”I started using—I started drinking and using drugs at a young age. I started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when I was 11. I had my first baby when I was 14.”

A turning point

It led to a hard life that included cocaine, a robbery conviction and being sent away to serve time in Kentucky. She said a turning point was 15 years ago, when her daughter introduced her to her infant grandson in the parking lot of the Tasty Crust restaurant where Villegas was on work furlough. That gave her the motivation to stop using and set an example.

After a fallout with her daughter’s family, and one slip back into alcoholism, Villegas quickly started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The 52-year-old grandmother has now come full circle. She has been clean for seven years, is working as a substance abuse counselor at Maui Behavioral Health Resources’ Aloha House and is on track to graduate with her associate’s degree in May.

Villegas started taking classes at UH Maui College in 2019. She was also accepted into the first cohort of the Kealahoʻimai Substance Abuse Counseling program for a series of seven free courses to earn two certificates required to become a CSAC. The program is sponsored by Hui No Ke Ola Pono, Inc., a non-profit community-based health enhancement, disease prevention and health care center. The second Kealahoʻimai cohort started classes this spring.

two people hugging
Kimberly Villegas and son Dillon Rodrigues

“Kimmie stands out because she’s come close to giving up several times, and never has. The road seemed endless to her, until she realized she was almost at the end,” said Selene LeGare, human services program coordinator at UH Maui College. “She’s really passionate about her work, and…she’s finally found a ‘happy medium’ between giving up and giving it 500%. She keeps setting her goals higher and higher.”

Villegas will be the first in her family to graduate from college. After a summer break, she would like to work toward a bachelor’s degree and, long-term, her goal is to work in the prison system.

“From a substance abuse user to a substance abuse counselor is so rewarding today, Villegas said. “I can show people it is possible to make a difference, and not continue the vicious cycle of substance abuse.”

By Kelli Abe Trifonovitch

5 people waving shaka
Kimberly Villegas, fourth from left, with daughter Ashley Rodrigues, second from left, and family.
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