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Life Lessons: Landscaping a Whole New Life

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By Susan Hereford

When Sandra Bertrand began her new life studying landscape design at PCC, she dumped out an old fishing tackle box and emptied its contents into a big, brown paper bag. She then began filling it with the tools of her new trade.

She has done the same thing with much of the contents that filled her past life. Bertrand’s journey, full of twists and turns, valleys and peaks, would leave most of us weary, if not shattered. A tenth grade high school dropout, mother of two by age 22, Bertrand recently divorced after 23 years of marriage. She’s also coping with an injury that forced her out of work ‘ walking down the road in 1988 she was literally hit by a truck. Bertrand has overcome a pile of obstacles, but probably her biggest obstacle was addiction ‘ addiction at a very young age.

"I only went to one quarter of tenth grade at Beaverton High, and most of that time was spent in the parking lot. My occupation was getting high," she admits with a rueful laugh. "It was a lot looser then, in 1977, and I had a fascination with the stoner culture. I’ve come out of this, but by the time I left school, I was a full-fledged addict."

Bertrand, who has been in recovery for 12 years, acknowledges the hard work, a day-by-day, one step in front of the other process. "Drug addiction had a huge impact on my life, but recovery has had a bigger impact," she says softly.

Rebellion began early. By ages 11 and 12, Bertrand was on the streets. She ran away so often that she ended up a ward of the state. She has since made peace with her mother, whom she now calls her best friend.

"I spent a lot of time with these really yucky kinds of people," she says, "who were doing terrible things." She shakes her head. "I’ve been protected somehow. There were so many times I could have been ‘" She decides not to finish her sentence.

Fast forward her life 20-plus years. Bertrand, the high school dropout, came to Portland Community College in 1998 ‘ not to enroll herself in school, but to help keep her

15-year-old daughter, Jenn, from dropping out and repeating the cycle. "A TAG (Talented and Gifted) underachiever," she explains. Bertrand had seen a flyer in the Beaverton library about one of PCC’s alternative high school programs and it piqued her interest.

"It was the Friday before winter term started on Monday, and this wonderful woman, Betty Simonds at PCC, got Jenn registered. She came in on one of her vacation days to help us."

Bertrand can’t explain the next thing that happened. "I asked Betty for a schedule (of classes) ‘ for me. My voice startled me. I said to myself, ‘That’s my voice. I just said that,’" she remembers disbelievingly.

Bertrand needed to take an ASSET test for placement. There was one slot left open, on Saturday, the next day. "I hadn’t sat at a desk for 20 years. It was scary, but it all happened so fast, it was sort of like a blur."

She tested at fifth grade math. She was put on a waiting list for the GED (General Education Development) class.

"I took Jenn to school on Monday and then just wandered around (campus) for days," she explains. "I was emotional, frustrated, not getting in the classes, and I was having terrible problems in my marriage."

She finally wandered into counseling and the counselor happened to also work for New Directions, a PCC displaced homemaker program. She took Bertrand to the class that night.

"At the height of frustration, the timing, it’s phenomenal," says Bertrand. It happened again when she later stepped into the computer resource center. Marilyn Marshall, on staff at Rock Creek, advised her to try enrolling for her GED at the Cascade Campus Skill Center in North Portland. She started two days, meeting James Dawson, a math instructor who she says is truly gifted.

"A lot (of the students) were relearning. I was learning it for the first time. I used tutoring, videos, but Mr. Dawson was the one (who brought me) from fifth grade to math 60 in two terms," she says.

"It is a miracle," she exclaims. "It was like a foreign language to me. I worked so hard. It is still a huge struggle, but it is no longer a foreign language." In fact, Bertrand admits that landscape math and the other subjects requiring math are now what most appeal to her because it is so gratifying to feel a sense of mastery with a topic that once eluded her. "I got a B in landscape math, and a B in math 60. This is phenomenal," she says.

Eventually she passed her GED tests with honors. An avid reader of "everything," and a self-taught, she’s never felt particularly embarrassed about her tenth-grade dropout status.

"It has been a gradual change. Not having an education meant nothing to me," she says of the early years. "I had a good house cleaning business, was self educated. I didn’t fit in the system, so I went out and worked and I was okay with that."

When she did return to school, earning PCC Foundation scholarships in her field of study and a coveted service learning scholarship to intern at the Hoyt Arboretum was the acknowledgement she needed to continue striving.

"The money was great, but it is what it did for me emotionally," said the Beaverton resident. "When the award letter came in the mail, I realized that somebody really believed in me."

Bertrand will be at PCC for another year. Then she plans to take her landscape technology associate’s degree to the workplace, hopefully to gain a position as an estimator, or a plant buyer, or in design.

"The other day I was driving home," she said, "and it came to me that miracles happen and I am one of them."

A miracle? Perhaps more like a marathon, with a Bertrand-styled personal best performance each and every day.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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