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Red Hawk finds peace, vows to advocate for abuse survivors

Grad with Grit: Rhiannon Proctor

Cedar Springs — When senior Rhiannon Proctor picked up her cap and gown from her counselor’s office at Cedar Springs High School, she clutched it with an excited giddiness bordering on disbelief.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Rhiannon wasn’t sure a diploma would be in her future; and, she confessed, she didn’t know if she’d be alive to see it. 

“I didn’t even think I could think that far into the future,” she said. “It’s really hard to think about where I came from and where I am now. It’s hard to wrap my mind around.”

Rhiannon is emerging from a lengthy period of trauma, marked by years of physical and mental abuse. The abuse led to substance use, mental-health issues, bad grades and behavioral problems.

But with the help of school counselor Danielle Paoni, foster mother Ashley Bailey and others, Rhiannon is now in a loving and supportive living situation. She recently graduated from Cedar Springs High School, and she’s set to attend Davenport University’s legal studies program in the fall.

‘I’ve very much pulled through … in being all right with peace instead of thriving in chaos all the time.’

— senior Rhiannon Proctor

‘Big Things to Overcome’  

By age 17, Rhiannon had faced a lot. She’d been removed from not one but two abusive households, navigated the foster system, and been embroiled in long, drawn-out, stressful attempts to prosecute her abuser. 

“I’ve had big things to overcome,” she said.

She faced it all while trying to safeguard and protect a now-14-year-old sister.

During that period of her life, there was little to consider beyond getting through the day, minute by minute, hour by hour. Rhiannon turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

“It was always a very rough time. … I just did anything to make it by,” Rhiannon said.

“She was just in survival mode,” noted foster mother Bailey.

Rhiannon Proctor poses with a piano she’s been painting at Cedar Springs High School

After years of enduring her situation, Rhiannon finally reached out for help in winter 2023. Rhiannon had a family connection to Bailey, and knew the woman to be a good mother to her own kids.

“I got a call from Rhiannon that just absolutely rocked my world,” Bailey said. “She opened up and we started to form a game plan just as far as getting her safe.”

Everyone involved thought it would be a relatively easy transition to Bailey’s home, but due to a potential conflict of interest in Rhiannon’s attempted prosecution, she and her sister were not initially able to stay there long term.

“It was devastating for everyone, because what we thought was happening that day was upended completely,” Bailey said.

Fortunately, prior to that, Paoni had also been building a relationship and establishing trust with Rhiannon. Paoni had invited the then-junior to her home for Christmas and it went well, so when a foster home was needed to keep the sisters together, the school counselor stepped up.

“I got a call that they were being put in foster care; they asked if I could keep them overnight, and I was like, ‘Absolutely,’” Paoni said. 

They ended up staying with her for 105 days.

Living vs. Surviving

It’s a good thing Paoni helped; without her intervention, Rhiannon and her sister might have been separated — even taken to different states.

Rhiannon said art has been a form of therapy for her (courtesy)

Another benefit of the temporary living situation was that Paoni kept Rhiannon on track in terms of graduation requirements. Rhiannon quickly started to thrive academically.

“I think she bumped herself five GPA points within five weeks, which is ridiculous,” Paoni said.

Once the court matters were done with and the sisters had the OK to live with the Baileys, there were still struggles ahead. Rhiannon said she’d been living in fear for so long that she found it almost impossible to let her guard down in her new home.

“It was almost as though, when she was safe, it felt so unnatural that she didn’t transition well to living versus surviving,” Bailey said.

“It’s just the fear of not knowing if something bad is going to happen, because I’m always thinking that something is too good to be true,” Rhiannon said. “I’m getting better at it. It really shows in my grades and my mental state now. 

“It’s not always great, but I’ve very much pulled through … in being all right with peace instead of thriving in chaos all the time.”

Rhiannon has used art and poetry as a release. Lately, she’s been touching up a piano in the hallway of the high school, covering it with intricate painted images of her own design.

She knows she’s making strides, but she still sometimes runs into difficulty managing her expectations. She’s also trying her best to make amends for some of the mistakes she made as a result of her own fear.

“I feel sometimes I’m just too hard on myself, and I feel like I need to achieve more and more,” she said. “It’s really hard for me to step back and be like, one, I’m alive; two, I’m graduating; three, I’m going to college for something I never thought I was going to go for.”

Rhiannon Proctor recently graduated from Cedar Springs High School (courtesy)

Rhiannon is eager to start her next chapter at Davenport. She plans to become an attorney so she can advocate for people like herself and her sister.

Paoni and Bailey are beaming at what Rhiannon’s accomplished. 

“I’m just glad I got the opportunity to keep championing her,” Paoni said. “Like, who do you meet like Rhiannon?”

“I just couldn’t be more proud,” said Bailey. “I don’t think there are words.” 

Despite everything, Rhiannon considers herself lucky.

“A lot of kids that have been in similar situations don’t get the opportunities I have,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to form the connections and relationships that I have now. I’m very glad for the support that I was able to get, that a lot of kids aren’t. 

“I’m just really glad I’m here now, so I can finally live.”

Read more from Cedar Springs: 
‘Make Cedar Springs a little more beautiful’: Eco Club aims to curb emissions
Teacher’s latest book focuses on motivation in education

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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