May 18, 2012
Jeff Bennett, Special to The Express
A positive test took just two minutes. A positive test meant she had to leave behind a life of exotic dancing, drugs and alcohol. A positive test meant her life was no longer her own.
Robin Rivera has been through more trauma in her 27 years of life than most could imagine. Thanks to a troubled childhood tainted by drugs and rebellion, traumatized by rape at age 15, Rivera had counted her life a waste. In the eyes of many, she was a statistic headed for a tragic ending. That was until a positive pregnancy test forced her to turn her life around when she was 24.
“I was faced with being a single mother, and I decided that was it,” Rivera said. “I had to do whatever it took to heal from the past and be the best woman I could be for this child. And for me that meant going back to school.”
Roughly two years ago, on a warm-but-breezy summer afternoon, Rivera walked onto the LPC campus for the first time, ashamed of her past and terrified of her future. Fast forward to present day. Rivera is graduating from Las Positas College on May 25 with an AA degree in Liberal Arts and headed to UC Berkeley on a full-ride scholarship.
This fall, when Rivera walks onto the campus of one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, she will have the satisfaction of knowing she has pulled off the near impossible. Expecting to major in psychology, Rivera is officially an example for any struggling young adults at LPC. She is proof that no matter how rough your life is or has been, it’s never to late too get back on track.
Before moving to Berkeley, Rivera will be spending her summer interning with the LIFETIME, a non-profit started by student mothers at UC Berkeley. With a slogan of “From GEDs to PHDs,” the San Leandro-based LIFETIME advocates for low income families having access to higher education. Rivera said she’ll be doing office work and rubbing shoulders with current law students.
After being told she would never amount to anything, it has been a struggle to deal with all the positive events that have been going on, including winning numerous scholarships and awards this past semester at LPC.
Things might be looking up now, but Rivera is still struggling to deal with her past. Rivera’s life wasn’t always marked by such positivity and inspiration. She wasn’t officially a teenager before her life began heading down the wrong path.
At age 11, Rivera started stealing Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix from her parents’ liquor cabinet. Her first sip came at Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton, when she talked two of her friends into taking a swig. Caught drinking on campus, Rivera was sent to a drug diversion class. She said she remembers being dwarfed by much larger 17 and 18-year-old trouble makers.
The class didn’t help though, as Rivera got wild as time went by. The alcohol first came from her parents’ house, but the need became greater.
“I was stealing bottles weekly, if not every other day,” Rivera said. “We would get drunk, sick drunk.”
To go along with all the booze she was stealing, Rivera also started grabbing cigarettes from the store. She said she thought it was cool to smoke. She said she was going for the bad girl image, intentionally trying to defy her parents’ wishes.
That behavior landed Rivera at the Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment Center in Oakland at age 14. She said she was tricked by her parents. Told they were headed to a mandatory family therapy session, Rivera said her parents dropped her off at Thunder Road and left her there for 45 days. That’s how long their insurance would cover.
The treatment center hardly helped, perhaps even worsened . During her stay, Rivera learned about all sorts of hard drugs she had never heard of. That is when she started hanging out with the older crowd and would face one of the most traumatic events in her young life.
Dressed as an angel at a 1999 Halloween party, Rivera drank the night away with people seven years older than her. She got so wasted that the next morning she woke up in a strange bed, wearing someone else’s sweat pants.
Remembering just bits and pieces of the night, and sore all over, Rivera got out of the strange bed and walked to school barefoot. She wasn’t sure what happened until two of her best friends reported to her the story they heard. She was raped.
“I just felt numb,” Rivera recalled after finding out what had happened. “I felt alone. I didn’t feel like I had a family at the time, and felt my friends had let me down because they weren’t looking out for me.”
Police were called in as word about the incident spread around Amador High School. Based on the rumor mill, Rivera said she knew the guys who were accused of raping her that night. But she said no charges were filed in the case.
After the rape, Rivera’s life spun out of control. The next couple weeks were a blur. She ran away from home. She digested any drug someone put in front of her. Suicidal thoughts danced about in her mind. She didn’t decide to go back home until a friend told her the FBI was going to investigate since she was missing for so long.
When she returned home, she was placed into Valley High School, a continuation high school in Pleasanton. She didn’t last long at Valley High before her parents took her to Casa by the Sea, a boarding school in Mexico.
“We had the police calling us,” Robin’s mother Madeline said. “I was a complete wreck during that time. I found a school in Mexico, and I took her down there.”
Casa by the Sea – located in Ensenada, Baja, California, Mexico – tried to break Rivera of her wild-child habits.
She said the school had a very strict set of rules. The students needed permission to do anything, including using the bathroom or getting up. Rivera had to pick up Spanish quickly as students were only allowed to use English if they had a question during class.
“They break you down,” Rivera said of the school. “They break down the image you had of yourself.”
The real value Rivera said she got from the boarding school was during the emotional seminars they were required to attend. During the seminars, all her problems were brought out in the open.
After 15 months in Mexico, Rivera returned home with a GED and one last project to complete from the school. Her final assignment was to have a face-to-face with her parents and a counselor. She said it was “good to talk it out” but described the process as extremely hard.
“They would help you process it all and hold you accountable,” Rivera said. “At the same time, my parents were doing the same thing in America.”
Rivera wanted to study cosmetology when she got back to the United States. But her father wouldn’t support her beauty school hopes so she enrolled at LPC. Two semesters later, however, Rivera severed ties with a boyfriend and left college.
Bouncing between low-paying jobs with Blue Cross and at Wente Vineyard, things were going relatively smoothly until Rivera crashed her car and got a DUI. The bills started to pile up. Needing money, and intrigued after a friend put the idea in her head, Rivera became a stripper.
“My first experience was terrifying,” Rivera said of her stripping debut at age 19. “My legs were like Jello, and I just wanted it to be over as soon as possible.”
It didn’t take long for Rivera to find her groove. Her background in ballet and other dance styles – she started taking dance classes as a young child – helped her adapt. She said she grew to love being on stage.
Her naturally graceful motions were on display as she bared it all on stage. She exercised her love for entertaining by flaunting her petite frame across the stage and whipping around her long dark hair. It paid off, in the literal sense, as Rivera raked in upwards of $2,500 on her best days.
The stripper lifestyle took its toll on Rivera, however, as she starting drinking heavily and doing drugs again. Strung out on drugs and wreaking havoc on her body, Rivera – seeking a new opportunity – petitioned her father to send her to the Castro Valley School of Cosmetology. There, she stayed clean eight months.
Things were going well until, one night, she up and left. Looking to escape her past and hoping to make her mark in the beauty world, she drove to Los Angeles.
She floated though a couple of jobs before landing a major opportunity. Using her bright style and her professional charisma, she landed a job at the world-renowned Giuseppe Franco Salon in Beverly Hills.
She lasted just one month.
Rivera said she left because she grew weary of the harassment she received from some of the male employees at the salon. Before long, she was bouncing from salon to salon, seemingly unable to get her feet settled in her career.
“I would get a job at a salon and couldn’t take it,” Rivera said. “I would leave and go back to dancing when something went wrong. I kept getting sucked back in.”
The erotic life was no good for Rivera, though. The drinking. The drugs. The partying. She began spiraling out of control. Again.
“I would get suicidal calls all the time,” said Ashley Navarro, Rivera’s friend from Pleasanton who moved down to L.A. while Rivera was down there. “I knew (the lifestyle) wasn’t something she wanted to do. She had to continuously talk herself into it, thinking she wanted to do it and liked to do it.”
Rivera moved in with a small-time rapper who had a few extra rooms in his Studio City apartment. Rivera was still stripping and partying religiously. But after a bad experience at a party where her roommate threatened her, she had enough. One night, she left it all behind, driving back to the Bay Area.
“She called my husband and said ‘I’m afraid of people,’” Madeline, Rivera’s mom, said. “She was very fearing for her life. She was in her pajamas when she drove home. It was relief to see her. I just wanted to love her and take care of her.”
A week after returning from Los Angeles, she took the pregnancy test and learned she was pregnant. She said the ensuing nine months helped her “transition into society.”
The task of motherhood seemed to bring out the best in Rivera, giving her a purpose she never seemed to find in drinking, using drugs, stripping or even doing hair.
She worked seven days a week – five days at Great Clips and two Yogakula, a yoga studio in Berkeley. When she wasn’t working, she read up on the birth process and how to be a good mother.
Izabella was born April 17, 2009. With no father to help, no career to give her baby the life she deserved, Rivera said she knew she needed to return to school.
“She was pretty timid,” said Kimberly Tomlinson, the CalWORKs Coordinator about when Rivera returned to LPC in June 2010. “I think she developed her own self confidence (at LPC). She already had the innate capacity to be a leader, but I don’t think she knew that about herself.”
In her two years, Rivera had amassed a 3.85 GPA and a resume of leadership roles. She spent two semesters as secretary of the Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society and two semesters as the treasurer of the Psi Beta National Psych Club Treasure. She was also co-leader of the outreach committee for the MISSEY organization, which is dedicated to helping sexually exploited youth.
On April 27, all of the hard work came to fruition. She was sitting at her mom’s desk at the Chabot Federal Credit Union in Dublin when she decided to go online and check the status of her application to Cal. She had been waiting nervously all morning for the school to update her status. But when she learned she was accepted, her reaction was not as expected.
“I thought I would be excited and screaming,” Rivera said. “Instead, I put my head in my hands and started crying.”
As word spread around the credit union that she got into Berkeley, her mothers’ co-workers started crying. Her mom said she was filled with joy when she heard the news, while Rivera’s father broke down in tears when he learned over the phone.
There figures to be more tears on May 25. When Rivera walks across the stage in the PE Complex during LPC’s commencement ceremonies, it will be the fulfillment of a vision. A vision planted by Tomlinson, that kept her going through the roughest times of juggling school, motherhood and work.
“She said just imagine yourself walking across the graduation stage and having your daughter with you,’” Rivera said. “It made me want to cry.”
Izabella, now 3, will be there. She probably won’t remember the day. But one day she will learn just how much she changed her life forever.