Following a series of painful setbacks, ADP student Raeleene Akin-Hanset '11 is helping others make the most of second chances.
By Scott A. Thompson
Director of Communications
Six years ago, Raeleene Akin-Hanset ’11 woke up in a hospital bed in Eureka, Calif. more dead than alive. An ex-boyfriend had assaulted her with a heavy flashlight, leaving her unconscious in an alley with multiple fractures to her face and most of her teeth knocked out. How she made it to the hospital, she can’t say.
What she does remember is lying in her hospital bed and wondering how her life had spiraled so out of control. The beating was just one in a series of traumatic experiences – including a battle with drug addiction, a two-year stint in prison, breast cancer surgery, and the death of a child – that had shaped the first 36 years of her life. She had reached her limit.
“I prayed to God, ‘If you really exist, do what you got to do, but get me out of here,’” she said.
Since that eventful day, Akin-Hanset’s life has been on a new trajectory. She is now a student in Warner Pacific’s Adult Degree Program. Given that she never attended high school – earning a GED instead – the fact that she will earn her bachelor’s degree in early 2012 is a major personal victory.
Akin-Hanset says her degree will enhance her work as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in St. Helens, Ore. And having been there herself, she believes it is her responsibility to help other victims get connected with the resources and support they need when their lives have been shattered.
“I’ve slowly been able to put my pieces back together and I want to help others do that,” she said.
A self-proclaimed “wild child” in her youth, Akin-Hanset grew up in Eureka and was legally married in 1984 at the age of 15 to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn’t go to high school, becoming a mother instead. By the time she was 18, Akin-Hanset had two baby boys, DeVon and Sean Hartzell. Her husband became abusive, however, and the two separated (they didn’t officially divorce until 2006). The couple decided to grant custody of the boys to their great-aunt, who lived in Redding, Calif.
“I decided it made me a better mom to have my kids raised in a Christian home where they could be provided for,” Akin-Hanset said. “Neither one of us could provide for these children.”
Three years later, Akin-Hanset had a daughter, Courtney, as a result of another relationship. She also had a serious drug habit that led to a two-year prison sentence for accepting stolen goods.
When she was released, Akin-Hanset reunited with her boyfriend and daughter in Las Vegas. Life was improving, until she developed breast cancer in 1998 at the age of 29. She had successful surgery, only to learn ten days later that Sean had died unexpectedly back in California.
After the funeral in Redding, Akin-Hanset went home to Eureka to grieve with her parents, against her boyfriend’s wishes. When she returned to Las Vegas weeks later, she discovered Courtney’s father had taken their daughter and moved out. She had no idea where they were. The news threw Akin-Hanset into a fog of depression and substance abuse that lasted a number of years. It was during this time that she took up with another boyfriend, the one who would later attack her.
“What I remember of those years was just staring at a wall and not seeing anything. I was just dead inside,” she said.
Hope on the horizon
Following the domestic assault in 2005, Akin-Hanset stole away to Oregon to hide. She landed in St. Helens, Ore., then relocated to Longview, Wash. to attend Lower Columbia Community College. She stayed sober, found a job on campus, and started getting good grades. When she received a letter saying she had made the Dean’s list, Akin-Hanset was afraid she had done something wrong.
“I called my dad and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m in trouble.’ He said, ‘No, honey, that’s a good thing,’” Akin-Hanset said.
After earning her transfer degree, Akin-Hanset returned to St. Helens. No longer fearing her former boyfriend, she created a personal webpage on the Internet with the hope that Courtney might seek her out. Sure enough, in 2008, Akin-Hanset’s then 17-year-old daughter found the webpage and contacted her. Later that year, the two had a tearful reunion at Portland International Airport.
“I hadn’t seen my daughter in 10 years,” said Akin-Hanset. “The minute she turned the corner my heart stopped. There she was. I knew she was my baby girl.”
That same day, Akin-Hanset’s newest boyfriend, Charlie Hanset, proposed. They were married in 2009, with DeVon serving as best man and Courtney as maid of honor.
Last year, Akin-Hanset enrolled at Warner Pacific and now travels three hours round trip every Tuesday from St. Helens to attend courses at the college’s satellite campus at King’s Way Christian School in Vancouver, Wash. She says she is one grateful person.
“I make it a point to wake up and thank God for another day,” she said. “I thank God for saving my life.”
By Scott A. Thompson
Director of Communications