College

Friday, Nov 17 2006 02:54 AM

Johnson a model for family ties

BY MASON KELLEY, Californian staff writere-mail: masonkelley@bakersfield.com

Just five days before she came to Cal State Bakersfield two years ago, Rhonda Johnson got a phone call.

On the other end of the line, from the other side of the country, she heard a voice both strange and familiar.

"I got a phone call from my mom's mom saying that my mom was in the hospital getting ready to die and I should come home and see her," said Rhonda, a starting forward at CSUB.

Rhonda hadn't seen her mother, Tina Baldwin, since she was 8 years old.

Years of drug abuse by Tina and Rhonda's father, Edward Johnson, kept the family from establishing a relationship, Rhonda said.

Rhonda's grandmother, Carol Johnson, with the help of her aunt, Kimmarie Johnson, stepped in to serve as surrogate parents while mother and daughter drifted farther apart.

Now back in Columbus, Ohio, Rhonda's mother, whose body was ravaged by years of drug abuse, was suffering from HIV and stomach cancer.

Rhonda flew back to Columbus and, during their emotional reunion, Tina apologized for years of neglect.

"I love you," she said.

After leaving the hospital on that first visit, Rhonda flipped through the numbers on her cell phone. When she reached "mom" it meant just a little bit more.

"It was a great feeling, because I had a number in my phone that said 'mom,'" Rhonda, 22, said. "I could dial it any time, and I never had that before."

Through all the years apart, Rhonda never held any bitterness toward her parents. At times, she wondered, "What if?" But she always felt OK with the course of her life.

"I always wanted to establish a relationship with her," Rhonda said of her mother. She saw her father more because Edward would come to visit Carol. But that didn't lead to much of a father-daughter relationship. "Whenever I went to go see her, the nurses said she was revitalized; she wanted to live more."

Seeing other children with their parents sometimes created an emotional void, but it never lasted. While she never had a traditional family, Rhonda never felt unloved. Actually, it was just the opposite. Rhonda admits she was spoiled.

Carol and Kimmarie provided all the support any child could ask for.

"For me it was very difficult at first, because I didn't want to have a child," said Kimmarie, 36, who is an actor in Los Angeles. "But I had to step up to the plate and be her mom and that was difficult, because I was still in school. It didn't matter, because I really loved her. That was the way it was going to be. That's life."

Life was never easy, moving from house to house. They frequently stayed with different family members in the Pittsburgh area when money was scarce.

"You never really had a sense of 'this is my room,'" Rhonda said. "You never had a sense that it was yours. You had to tip-toe around certain things. Each person we lived with, I can remember certain things. Everybody has their rules."

It was always Carol's goal for her family to have a house of its own, and, after living all over Pittsburgh and moving briefly to Florida with Rhonda's uncle, Greg Johnson, the family got its own house.

The money, which also led to the purchase of a new car -- at the time Rhonda was much more impressed by the car -- came from an inheritance left by Rhonda's great grandmother, Eleanor West.

The mother of 10 kids, Eleanor would play the lottery using her childrens' birthdays.

One day, she won.

"She hit the lottery for like $5 million dollars," Rhonda said. "The family did well with the money and every year each of the kids would get a disbursement. When my great grandmother passed away, everybody got a big settlement check. My grandmother was able to buy a house.

"Everything was looking better. I was in high school and it was a more stable condition."

For the first time in her life, Rhonda had a room of her own.

The house was simple: A country-style home in the suburbs with a room Rhonda could decorate any way she wanted.

It was something the whole family could be proud of.

"It was such a proud experience," Rhonda said. "(Carol) was so happy. She was taking pictures, sending them to my dad. She was really excited about that.

"It wasn't the biggest house or the newest house. It was a moderate house."

It was their house.

After years of dreaming about a space she could call her own, Rhonda and Kimmarie got creative.

"We were so scared that (Carol) was going to freak out on us," Rhonda said.

Armed with a can of purple paint and a sponge, they painted the largest wall in the room.

As soon as they were finished, they both thought, "We're going to get in trouble."

Carol took it in stride.

"It's cute," Rhonda remembers her grandmother saying. "It wasn't her favorite thing, but she warmed up to it."

Kimmarie still serves as Rhonda's interior decorator, helping her set up her apartment in Bakersfield.

"I'm trusting her, because any time she gets going, I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it's about to be hooked up real nice,'" Rhonda said.

The other walls in Rhonda's room were plastered with pictures of friends, and collages from all of Rhonda's various clubs and teams.

Carol and Kimmarie always pushed Rhonda to keep busy. Anything she started, Kimmarie made sure Rhonda finished.

"I was hard on her a lot of times when I wanted to be the friend," Kimmarie said. "I'd have to say to her, 'You can't give up.' She's not allowed to make any excuses for her life."

The family moved around so much, it seemed Rhonda was always making friends on the run through social organizations and clubs.

No matter how many friends she made or clubs she joined, she always took time to show her appreciation for Carol and Kimmarie, often leaving notes thanking them for everything they had done.

"They appreciated that," Rhonda said. "They said, 'You don't even have to say that to me.' But I felt like I did, because I knew they didn't have to do that. I wasn't their responsibility. I was my father's responsibility."

Kimmarie said she doesn't feel like Rhonda owes her anything. Kimmarie didn't need those notes. The only piece of paper she wants to see in Rhonda's hand is a diploma.

"It's amazing that Rhonda has a scholarship to school," Kimmarie said. "I look at it as our scholarship, because we both had to fight for that. There were times Rhonda didn't want to go to practice because she had a lot of things to deal with.

"I did it because I love her. She just owes me to get out of school. That's my ultimate goal for her, to get that degree and be happy."

Kimmarie is already picturing Rhonda's graduation and, when that day comes, Kimmarie said, "I think I might pass out."

Edward was the father of three other children, but Carol only raised Rhonda, constantly wrestling with the idea of whose responsibility it was to raise Edward's children.

"I'm thankful that my grandmother took me in, because she didn't have to because her kids were already grown," Rhonda said. "My father had kids that she didn't take in after me."

Of Rhonda's five brothers and sisters, she has only met one, William.

It was always Carol and Kimmarie filling the roles of mother, sister, grandmother, aunt and best friend.

Over the years, Rhonda grew to idolize Kimmarie.

"Anything my aunt wanted to do, I wanted to do," Rhonda said. "She was a flight attendant, I was like, 'Oh, I want to be a flight attendant.' I would walk around the house with her little suitcase, dragging it on the wheels. When she started modeling, I was like, 'I want to be a model.'

"Even now, I think she has the best personality. I wish that my personality was like hers. She's my everything."

Added Kimmarie, "She's my everything too."

Some of Rhonda's best memories are of trips with Carol and Kimmarie, staying in hotels and listening to Boyz II Men, so it's not a surprise that when Kimmarie moved to Los Angeles, Rhonda wasn't far behind.

After graduating from high school, Rhonda felt a need to leave Pittsburgh.

She went to Los Angeles, playing her first two college basketball seasons at Santa Monica Junior College.

"As soon as I got to Santa Monica, it was like I became something," said Rhonda, who went to the gym twice a day. "As soon as the first day of practice hit, I was a different person almost."

Just as Rhonda was beginning to find herself as a person and player, she had to step back and deal with death. First Edward died from HIV in 2003. Then Carol died following a bout with cancer shortly after a visit with Rhonda and Kimmarie.

"I definitely think she's a strong woman to go through all the things that she's been through in her life and then go through her son being on drugs and just dealing with her childrens' problems on top of her problems and still making sure that everyone is fine and making sure that I had the things that I wanted," said Rhonda after looking back on Carol's life.

Then, in April, Rhonda had to miss the Roadrunners' team banquet at the end of the season after the death of her mother.

Looking back on her life, Rhonda understands the decisions her parents made.

"I'm not mad at them at all," Rhonda said. "I think everybody lives their life the way they want to. I wouldn't want anybody to stop me from making decisions that I think are for me.

"Obviously, they chose to live that way. I can't hate them or be mad at them. I believe in God and God says, 'Don't hate.' I can only wish they would have thought more about the decisions they were making, especially bringing a child into the world."

After all she's been through, she says she's OK. She hopes her story can help others.

In fact, the hardship she endured made her tough. It helped her game.

"She's a pretty tough kid," said CSUB coach Tim La Kose of Rhonda, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season. "She has that toughness to her that others probably wouldn't, considering all she's had to go through. She definitely brings that. She's competitive, and it's contagious. It reflects on the court. That's what she brings to the table."

She learned her toughness from Carol and Kimmarie, the toughness softened with their love.

"I'm so happy I have her in my life," Rhonda said of Kimmarie. "I don't know where I would be without her. I know I wouldn't be as strong as I am today."

Life is tough, but Rhonda is a fighter.

"We have a beautiful relationship," Kimmarie said. "It's funny how that works out. Sometimes there's some bad along the way, but in the end of it all it's the most wonderful thing, if you fight for it."

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