Dr. Rhonda Palmer. Photo courtesy Rhonda Palmer

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

WILLINGBORO – For some educators, a student comes along who they will never forget. For Dr. Rhonda Palmer, that student was Michael J. Hawkins, who died in Camden due to gang violence in 2010.

When Palmer founded a hands-on academic and career planning nonprofit to help students from middle school on adjust and enter adulthood, she named it after Hawkins. She said she wants the Michael J Hawkins Transition Planning Services Corp. to give its participants positive and productive decision-making skills, adding how Hawkins was a catalyst for that.

“He was a personable, friendly, and handsome young man who had to endure numerous living situations and adjustments since he was four years old,” Palmer told Front Runner New Jersey.com recently. “Michael had special needs and had experienced 17 foster homes and 3 group homes in his short life. The Gateway Group Home in Lumberton, New Jersey was where I had the honor and privilege to meet and work with him.

“Michael did graduate from Rancocas Valley High School via an alternative route, but he still lacked the skills necessary to be employed. His favorite subject in high school was Science and he had an extremely, creative verbal ability when it came to telling stories. Michael loved to draw and wanted to attend Savannah College for Art and Graphic Design.

“When he turned 18 years old, DFYS gave him $200 and sent him on an unknown path. Michael always kept in touch with me. When he called me, he would always say ‘Hi Mom, I just called to see how you were doing.’ He would always check in with me from time to time. Michael loved his freedom from the system and never complained,” she said.

Palmer said, unfortunately, Hawkins apparently joined a gang and was found murdered with his girlfriend Muriah Huff by 10 people in Camden. With no next-of-kin available, Palmer made final arrangements for Hawkins herself.

“Michael always asked me would I be there for him and I always responded, ‘To the end, Michael,'” Palmer said. “Nonetheless, my lifelong mission is to Pay It Forward by providing the necessary services for our young people to transition into adulthood. Ultimately, enabling them to make positive and productive decisions for their future.”

Dr. Rhonda Palmer. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Palmer

Breast Cancer Scare, VA Challenges

Palmer, an Air Force veteran, has survived her own personal crisis after two bouts with breast cancer.

“Being told that I had breast cancer caused my life to flash in front of my eyes,” Palmer said. “It was scary and overwhelming. You immediately want this monster out of you immediately. Being a female veteran made it even harder because the VA Medical Center in Philly was still not prepared to handle a diagnosis of breast cancer for a female veteran. 

“It got so bad that I had to reach out to my Congressman to assist me with getting the care that I needed. The second time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the VA Medical Center in Philly got it right and my care was delivered efficiently,” she added. 

Palmer said he delayed going to college, opting for a career in the Air Force instead out of high school after growing up in Brooklyn.

“I had a couple of friends/family members who had joined the Air Force,” Palmer said. “I knew at that time that I did not want to go to college and the Air Force would give me the opportunity to see the world. Little did I know that I would start college in 1984 and never really stopped since then.”

After leaving the Air Force and becoming a reservists, Palmer took a job in corrections, which led I to her teaching children with special needs.

Helping Special Needs Children

“Prior to becoming a special education teacher, I was a correctional officer at Burlington County Detention Center,” Palmer said. “It was very devastating to me to witness how many young people with special needs were incarcerated in an adult facility. I believed that if I could help young people while they were still in high school, I might be able to motivate at least one person to do something positive with his or her life.

“I have watched at least three generations of several families spend repeated time in jail. I often wondered who was taking care of their children. Now as an educator, I find myself advocating for these children because it does take a village to raise a child. If we do not help these children now, they are doomed to create another generation of lifelong incarcerated adults,” she added.

Palmer earned her associate degree from Rowan College Burlington County and then transferred to Rowan University to earn her bachelor’s degree. She would go on to earn her master’s and doctorate.

‘In Love’ with Teaching

“I fell in love with teaching,” Palmer said. “I pursued my associate degree in education at Rowan College at Burlington County in 2000. What I loved most about RCBC was that there were adults my age attending as well. I truly found my experience at RCBC convenient, affordable, effective and rewarding. In addition to attending RCBC, I was also nominated as the student alumni board trustee upon graduation.”

Palmer retired from the military fully in 2013 with 23 years of service. She is currently a Learning Disabilities teacher consultant in Highland Park School District and as a behaviorist at Adept Programs in Mount Holly.

She has received the Youth Achievers’ Committee 2013 President Excellence Award, the Mayor of Camden City 2013 Women of Purpose Award, the United States Army Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters. She was also the 2005-2006 Teacher of the Year for the Burlington County Special Services School District and was a member of the Special Education Delegation to Russia in 2008.

Lifelong Learner, Praising Parents

Palmer covered several other subjects in her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.

FRNJ: You have received numerous awards for your work in the military and in education. Which one are you closest to? 

Rhonda Palmer: I feel that I am closest to the Burlington County Outstanding Woman of the Year in Education.  

FRNJ: Why is education so important to you?

Rhonda Palmer: I consider myself a lifelong learner and believe that you should never be satisfied with your last accomplishment, so, when I saw an opportunity to complete my doctorate at the military expense, I jumped on it. 

FRNJ: How seriously do you take your role as a role model for other African-American youth and young people? Any advice for them?

Rhonda Palmer: I take my role as a role model for African American youth and young people who may interested in politics very seriously.  It is our duty and responsibility to prepare the next great leaders of the United States.

FRNJ: Any personal inspirations?

Rhonda Palmer: My parents were my first personal inspirations – My Dad who is a retired corrections officer, taught me to write everything down, if it is not in writing, it never happened.  My mom (retired teacher assistant) taught me to not talk about people but help them. Marian Wright Edelman writings taught me that I should leave the world better than I found it. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught me that “The time is always right to do what is right and that Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” and lastly,  “Purpose is when you know and understand what you were born to accomplish. Vision is when you see it in your mind and begin to imagine it.”- Myles Munroe, Jr.  

FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Rhonda Palmer: In five years, I still see myself doing God’s Will in some capacity but perhaps, on a sunny beach in Panama.

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