By Edee Lemonier ’11
For many, enrolling at Clark College means a greater career trajectory and a brighter future. For Rhonda Bartley, an education moves her far beyond academics and into healing and personal growth.
Bartley, 43, grew up in a loving, hard-working family in Vancouver, Wash. After three tours of duty in Vietnam, her dad returned home to work as a mechanic. He often traveled as far as California to find work so he could send money back to the family, while his wife stayed home with Bartley and their other four children. Life wasn’t always easy, but it was good, Bartley recalls.
Even as a little girl Bartley was thinking of her future. “I’ve known my whole life I wanted to help people,” she said. What she didn’t know back then was that life was going to take her on a detour in which she would need comfort from others.
Bartley had left home to live with her aunt in California when she met a security guard at the apartment complex where she lived.
“Everything was wonderful in the beginning,” she remembers of the man. Bartley was 16. Joe Brink Jr. was 27. He was charming, not only to Bartley, but to her family as well. The age difference was never a deterrent. They moved in together. Then things went terribly wrong.
Brink changed almost instantly; he began abusing. “It started with something that seemed small at the time,” she said. “He grabbed my arm really hard.”
The abuse escalated rapidly and her boyfriend became more and more violent. When she got pregnant about seven months into their live-in relationship, Brink hit her in the stomach. She miscarried.
Four years later in 1992, she was pregnant again and this time there was pressure from their families to get married for the sake of the impending birth. They married when Bartley was 21 and their son arrived soon after.
Besides the son, her husband had a toddler daughter, Heather, from a previous marriage. Heather easily blended into the family and Bartley enjoyed being the mother of two children. Over time, Bartley became paralyzed by thoughts of what could happen to the children if she fled her volatile husband.
Bartley’s husband convinced her to believe that no matter how bad things were at home, she’d never be able to function on her own. “He made me feel worthless, like I couldn’t do anything.”
She sought some help. She confided in her pastor, who told her marriage was forever. “I tried to view it from the positive side, but I was trapped in this belief system.”
Her husband quickly isolated Bartley from friends and family, moving from town to town across several states. The first time she asked why they were leaving he beat her as punishment for questioning him. She never asked again. Looking back, Bartley believes he had a more sinister reason for skipping town.
More than a decade into their marriage and after having battled cervical cancer since the age 23, her husband moved them to Vancouver, Wash. Soon after, a young girl—her son’s friend—disclosed that Brink had sexually abused her. He was convicted and sentenced to prison. During an evaluation, he confessed to abusing a number of other children throughout the years.
“I think we moved so much because he had done something to a child in the area and figured he was about to get caught,” Bartley said.
Bartley divorced him in 2001 and quickly discovered a new-found freedom.
“I realized there was so much more to me. I still had the same goals and dreams; they never went away. I figured I could either breakdown and die or I could go on and be productive and help somebody.”
However, life had another hand to deal before Bartley could get relief. Brink was released on parole after serving about three years, but was caught taking pictures of children on school property and was sent to a Washington State prison.
It was during the second incarceration that Heather, Brink’s daughter, took her life.
The devastation was palpable. “She had been at college in North Carolina. She was just a few months shy from graduating. I got a phone call from a nurse in the ER at the hospital where Heather had been taken. The nurse asked if I was actually Heather’s mom and if she had any other relatives. I told her Heather had grandparents in North Carolina and a little brother at home.”
Bartley said the nurse’s response was callous, but it triggered a revival of determination.
“The nurse said, ‘Well, that was awfully selfish of her, wasn’t it?’ That was the moment I knew exactly what I had to do,” Bartley said. “I decided I would become a behavioral health nurse and work in a hospital emergency room. I could be a compassionate voice for someone like my daughter.”
By 2012, Bartley’s cancer had been in remission for years. She lost 65 pounds and was able to stop taking medication for diabetes. She took her General Education Development (GED) test in anticipation of going back to school.
“I decided I had to stop saying I was going to do it and actually do it.”
After more than 25 years, Bartley was once again a student in 2012.
Only the beginning
It was tough initially, but she credits Clark College with accelerating her healing process. She takes advantage of the free seminars and has attended lectures on motivational study skills, anxiety, stress management and identifying victims versus creators.
Bartley views these workshops as not only important for her personal growth, but as opportunities to fine-tune the skills necessary to navigate the financial aspects of being a college student. Bartley has applied for a scholarship each quarter and she is hopeful that she will one day receive one.
“Keep trying, even if you get shot down. Eventually it will be your time,” she reminds herself.
As much as Bartley appreciates all of the learning opportunities at Clark College, she feels most fortunate to have thoughtful and compassionate instructors.
“I started out the first week in the very back of the class with my hair in front of my eyes and my hoodie up. But I’ve been so lucky to have had instructors who got to know me and who encouraged me. I actually added ‘sit halfway up to the front’ on my list of goals. One day an instructor asked if I realized I had been steadily moving closer toward the front of the room throughout the quarter. Now I’m sitting right up front and participating in everything.”
Bartley is in her fifth quarter at Clark College and maintains a 4.0 grade-point average. She got remarried last August and expects to graduate next year with an associate degree.
While she decides when to apply to the Nursing program, she is excited for the possibilities her future holds. She describes her journey as one that has gone “from victim to victory.”
But, what she most wants others to know is: “You may have obstacles or struggles, but that should never stop you from getting where you want to be.”
Her education at Clark College is only the beginning.
Edee Lemonier ’11 is a writer based in Vancouver and former fourth grade teacher.