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Yolanda Cunningham

Yolanda Cunningham

On May 29th, Yolanda graduated with her third AA degree in Family & Consumer Science. That degree sits alongside her degrees in Liberal Arts & Science, and Humanities.

Yolanda Cunningham grew up in Oakland, the second oldest in a family of three brothers and four sisters. At Castlemont High, she played outfield on the softball team. “I love playing softball, but hate watching it,” admits Yolanda.

In high school, Yolanda also nurtured her artistic talents. Yolanda loves painting, ceramics, photography and animation, to name a few. “I’m a very hands-on person. Anything that’s artistic, I’ll do.” That artistic flare also applies to cooking presentation. “Sometimes the dish looks so pretty, you don’t want to eat it. But when you smell it, you chow down!”

No doubt her husband Ronnie, sons Ronnie Jr., (25) Manuel, (9) and daughter Jessica, (19) appreciate her culinary skills.

Others are thankful for Yolanda’s fundraising abilities. She’s proud of efforts to raise $10,000 for a “Support the Troops” benefit. This effort helped 40 troops keep internet access in their Ramadi, Iraq barracks. One of those soldiers was her son, Ronnie Jr. “Troops were using their own money to keep internet access,” protested Yolanda. Other charitable efforts include raising thousands of dollars for the family of a deceased Longs Distribution Center work colleague.

Certainly, Yolanda was their angel in waiting….

The realization you possess a good heart and numerous talents doesn’t always push you in the right direction. Life isn’t quite that simple. Yolanda admits bad habits were introduced in high school.

“I started out on the gateway drugs; alcohol, weed. It was peer pressure. I just wanted to join in with my friends.”

Actions not yet dire enough to sidetrack her life, Yolanda dreamed of becoming an art instructor. In 1982, she enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. That year, she also married husband, Ronnie.

Habits stared to sneak up on the Cunninghams.

“Part of it was the pressure of trying to get through classes,” confesses Yolanda. She and Ronnie moved from the gateway drugs to cocaine. “We started just a little at first, then after a year or so, we took it every day. It’s like a tornado.” Eventually, crack cocaine became the norm. “We stopped doing weed and drinking. We just settled on crack cocaine. Cocaine calls you…”

Studies suffering, Yolanda dropped out of art school in 1985.

Now ensconced in a destructive lifestyle with a child, the occasional job and assistance program weren’t sufficient to sustain their habit. Yolanda and Ronnie admit turning to crime.

“We became con-artists. We were a team. The craving controls your behavior. It’s more important than food, work…everything. It transforms you into another person…another dimension.”

Yolanda’s artistic talents were put to use snatching identities and “fandangling” as she puts it. “Ronnie and I would gain a person’s confidence and steal their identity. I’d get their credit cards, account information and social security numbers. This was a devious job and supported our habit for years.”

The police would catch up to Yolanda and Ronnie now and then, but the evidence always fell short. In time, that would change. For Yolanda, her epiphany was delivered through a dramatic choice from her then 17 year old son, Ronnie Jr.

Ronnie Jr. wanted out…

There are those who believe angels act through the deeds of people around us. Perhaps a bit of wisdom delivered here, a nudge down life’s fork, there.

Typically, a crucial chance encounter does the trick…usually from one never found again. Are these angels? If such is the case, then Ronnie Jr. was Yolanda’s angel on that day.

“I remember it as if it were yesterday,” says Yolanda. “I was strung out on the couch. Ronnie Jr. came in and gave me a paper to sign. I didn’t even look, I just signed.”

Ronnie Jr.’s document gave him permission to join the Army at age 17. He had enough of his “drug ridden family.” Ronnie’s words would move Yolanda and Ronnie Sr. back down the proper fork in their road…the long road to recovery.

“I pleaded with Ronnie to let me use his signing bonus to get me into a drug program.”

Ronnie Jr. made his choice. No turning back…

“I didn’t help you put that pipe in your mouth; I’m not going to help you take it out…”

“I asked Ronnie Jr. to accompany me to church and pray…”

“Why should I believe in God if God won’t help my parents off crack cocaine?“

Ronnie Jr. started out the door, paused, and then looked back…

“I’m going to go to church…but I’m not going to pray for me, I’m going to pray for you and daddy….”

The reality of what the Cunningham’s life had become finally hit home; the burden inflicted on her children was indisputable.

But old habits die hard. Two months after Ronnie Jr.’s enlistment, the long arm of the law grabbled and didn’t let go. Yolanda was in jail for possession of crack. In and out of jail over the next two years, she no longer received familiar breaks. Yolanda might be looking at a long stay.

Determined, her spirit wasn’t totally snuffed out.

Yolanda credits the Chemical Dependency Counseling Center, in particular, substance abuse counselor Larry Williams, for guiding her down the straight and narrow path to recovery. “He’s always there when I need him. I carry his card around with me everywhere I go,” adds Yolanda.

Yolanda’s eventual rehabilitation and new purpose in life allowed her to receive expunged records for past deeds. She even found a job with Target from 2001-2002. “I’d never had a job for that long.” From Target, she moved to the Long’s Distribution Center in Patterson, where she has worked for six years.

Ronnie Sr. chose to stop using crack “cold turkey” and was clean for over 5 years. Since he chose not to receive the education provided through an abuse program, important training wasn’t there when needed. “The habit came back and bit me,” confesses Ronnie. “I entered a drug program last year.”

Yolanda has this simple advice for any young person thinking of using drugs. “Think twice and ask yourself, ‘Are the drugs worth my life and my family’s life?’ NO!”

And so the Cunninghams move forward. Husband Ronnie is taking classes at Delta. Yolanda still dreams of becoming a teacher or opening a daycare center. She has been accepted to UOP. With her artistic talents still bubbling forth, she intends to major in Visual Arts.

The impact of Delta’s learning environment is not soon forgotten. “Delta accepted me and I picked myself back up. It opened the door to infinite knowledge and a new life.”

Yolanda was inspired by English instructor Helen Murray. “She was ‘real’ and told the truth.” She credits art instructor Raoul Mora for “reintroducing me to my artistic talent,” and philosophy instructor Leonard Olson for inspiring deep thought and debate. “I like to argue,” Yolanda adds with a smile.

Yolanda was honored to be chosen as San Joaquin Delta College’s Commencement Speaker. Her speech focused on the positive…and her past.

“It emphasized the glory within each individual. I’m not ashamed to tell people what I did. The whole purpose of my speech was to let people know you can come out of it. We fall down, but we can get back up! You start anew.”

There was a special family member waiting for Yolanda after graduation. Standing at her side was Ronnie Jr., veteran of four tours in Iraq, and Bronze Star winner for valor in combat.

“He’s my real life hero,” exclaims Yolanda, “In more ways than one.”