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Hawaii News | Incidental Lives

For Buddhist parole officer, changing lives is a sure thing


Some things a person just knows.

Like when Jo desMarets was in the third grade in Columbus, Ohio, working on a Hawaii statehood project and she just knew that sooner or later she was going to live in Hawaii.

Or like years later when desMarets was sitting in world history class at Linden-McKinley High School and realized she was meant to be Buddhist.

DesMarets, 61, did in fact end up moving to Hawaii 40 years ago. Loves it. Has no intention of leaving. After years of informal study (and after impulsively writing “Buddhist” in the religion box on a hospital intake form), she did indeed join her neighborhood hongwanji, or temple. Fit like a glove. She knew it would.

Such surety isn’t always easy to come by, especially in desMarets’ job as a parole officer or her volunteer work with Maluhia Adult Day Health Center. There’s no telling how other people will respond to their life challenges. No way of knowing for certain how good intentions will tip the scales. And so desMarets sticks to what she knows: Genuine compassion is its own reward, education is empowering, beating on drums is hella fun.

DesMarets started working with female offenders when her University of Hawaii social work graduate adviser nixed her plans to work with the Special Olympics and instead sent her to complete her practicum at the women’s prison.

That was in the Wild West days of 1984, before massive reforms were instituted to repair a system in disarray.

“When I got there, it was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” desMarets said. “It was a mess.”

Still, the experience moved desMarets to devote her career to helping female offenders lift themselves from their circumstances. This year, two of desMarets’ parolees earned associate’s degrees; two others earned their general education diplomas.

“I found that education is what empowers these women to go back and do the healing that’s necessary to deal with their abuse issues and other problems,” desMarets said. “When they find that they can sit in class and read and make it through, it changes them. Watching these women change their lives is what keeps me going.”

In 1994, desMarets took in an elderly friend from her hongwanji. As the woman’s health became an issue, desMarets found herself serving as her friend’s primary care giver, a duty that — even with webcams set up around the house — was difficult to handle with a full-time job.

Eventually, desMarets turned to Maluhia to provide daytime care for the woman. DesMarets was so taken with the facility and its staff that she soon began volunteering. When her friend eventually passed away two years ago, desMarets worked through her grief by getting even more involved.

DesMarets spends Saturdays and furlough Fridays at Maluhia, customizing arts and crafts projects for clients based on their abilities. She also leads a weekly drum circle, an activity so uplifting that clients are sometimes moved to get up and dance.

Though her schedule doesn’t allow for much free time, desMarets says her job and her volunteer work provide ample fun. “Most of what I enjoy — doing crafts or drumming — I enjoy doing with others,” she said. “And for whatever I might give, I get so much more in return.

“I try to embrace each precious moment to the fullest so that if the next moment doesn’t come, it’s OK.”

That much she knows.


Reach Michael Tsai at

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