This weekend, North Bend Central Junior/Senior High School senior Ben Rolenc will graduate. Both of his parents — April and Rod — will be able to attend.
There was a point in Ben’s high school career where that prospect seemed in doubt.
For two and a half years — from 2014 to 2016 — his mother April was in a federal prison in Illinois. She was serving a sentence for possessing methamphetamine with intent to deliver, the result of a decades-long struggle with substance abuse that began when she was 16.
In that time, Ben, Rod and Ben’s brother and sister would make the long trip to Illinois to visit April whenever they could, usually around the holidays. Rod was working two jobs to support the family, and with his older brother moving out, Ben found himself taking on new jobs around the house to help care for the house and his sister, all while juggling school work and sports.
It was a stressful and emotional situation, creating barriers that many families might consider insurmountable. But not the Rolencs.
Today, more than two years later, April is free and sober, working full time, attending her kids’ school events and working to revitalize North Bend Central Public Schools Booster Club through banquets and fundraising events. School administrators say that, despite all of his family struggles, Ben is not only graduating, but thriving, having become a major part of the track, basketball and football teams. After graduation, he’s eyeing a career in the military. And most importantly, with graduation coming up, the Rolenc family is together.
“Kids like Ben are why we all believe in the American Dream,” said Dan Endorf, superintendent at North Bend Central Public Schools.
Ben recalls seeing the effects of his mother’s drug addiction even before she was arrested.
“When I was younger, mom was always in and out of the house,” he said. “She was gone for months and then back for a couple weeks and then gone again.”
April, recalling those days, describes her kids’ childhoods as “chaotic.”
“There were people in and out of the house. In my chemically induced mind, they were fed, they had friends, they had everything they needed,” April said. “They knew what was going on. Mom was hardly ever home.”
Everything changed when April was sentenced to prison. It was actually the second time she’d spent time in prison — the first time had been a 90-day sentence at the women’s correctional facility in York.
April says that this second stint was the pivotal moment in her life that helped her turn things around. She had been facing a significantly longer sentence of at least seven years. When she was only sentenced to three, she felt blessed.
“It almost dropped me to my knees, and I was like this is just God saying: ‘this is your time to get your life right,’” she said.
Still, her time away from her family brought many hardships. Rod was left to care for the family on his own, taking on two jobs. Visiting April in prison in Illinois required long and often costly trips.
April recalls the first time her family came to visit, seeing them through the glass and later hearing about how they all went home and cried.
“I knew at that point that I couldn’t do this to them,” April said. “To do it again to them is just not an option.”
For Ben, the hardest part was not always having family in the stands during sports events.
But Ben says the experience of seeing his mother in prison helped him learn important lessons about responsibility.
“I realized that there’s people out there that make decisions like that,” Ben said. “And then I was like, well I don’t want to be one of those people, realizing where it could end up putting somebody.”
Sports became an outlet for Ben, and according to North Bend Central Junior/Senior High School Principal Brenda Petersen, he’s played a vital role in bringing all of his teams success: he helped take the football team to the playoffs, helped the basketball team reach number two in the state and played a pivotal role in shot put and discus throwing, she said.
“Ben’s a worker. I think you can see that in the football field, basketball court, track and in the classroom. He doesn’t want to let people down,” Petersen said. “He’s an impressive kid. He’s a worker, he’ll do whatever needs to be done to be successful. He’s just a great kid.”
Ben also credits his friends for helping him to get through his turbulent first two years of high school. They helped him stay on track, especially with training for sports.
“I just followed what my friends did and they just keep pushing me through whatever,” he said. “They’d like, text me and call me and tell me to get up to go do weights in the morning during the summer.”
April left prison after two and a half years and then started living in a halfway house in Council Bluffs. There, she began to put her determined thoughts of a better life into action. She started earning the trust of both her supervisors and members of the North Bend community, and was eventually trusted with occasional day trips to go see Ben’s sporting events.
When she was home for good, April says she felt she had a new lease on life. She knew that while she missed much of Ben’s high school career, there was still plenty of time left. She’d managed to attend her oldest son Logan’s graduation before going away. Now, she knew she wouldn’t miss a single one of her children’s graduations — either Ben’s or her high school junior daughter Shyann’s.
“Graduation you can never get back,” April said. “Milestones like that you can never get back. I didn’t have to miss my oldest son graduate. I was back in time to be a part of Ben’s successes as a high school student.”
April is an assistant manager at Dollar General and also very involved in the school community, according to Petersen, who says that she’s played a pivotal role in reviving the school’s long-dormant booster club.
Ben, meanwhile, is proud of how far both of his parents have come.
“It’s pretty incredible that even though that was what their whole past consisted of, that they could bounce back and be what they are now,” Ben said. “It showed to me that people can actually bounce back after they’ve realized that they made a large mistake like that.”
After graduating, Ben is set to join the Marines in August. It’s a decision that makes April “super proud,” and one that he made entirely on his own. He believes the Marines embody many of the lessons of brotherhood that he learned from his friends in school — the ones who helped him through difficult times.
“I’ve heard a lot about the adventure and the brotherhood that it brings, and that’s kind of what I’ve gone through throughout high school, like my friends are keeping me on the straight and narrow,” Ben said.
As for the Rolenc family, things are better than ever, April said. And she plans to keep it that way.
“They supported me and stuck by me through everything,” she said. “It’s my turn to stick by them.”