MOUNT LAUREL >> According to Rhonda Palmer’s high school yearbook, she wanted to be a doctor, teacher and lawyer. Although she didn’t check off all those boxes, her drive and determination over the years has enabled her to earn four degrees, visit five countries, help local youth and earn recognition as the 2019 Burlington County Outstanding Woman of the Year in Education.
It all began when Rhonda decided to join the Air Force in 1982. As a personnel management technician, she enjoyed travelling the world to include Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and France. Honorably discharged in 1992, she settled in Willingboro. She found work as a reservist at McGuire Air Force Base and a corrections officer at the Burlington County Detention Center. During that time, it was devastating for her to witness how many young people with special needs were incarcerated in an adult facility.
Shortly thereafter, she realized it was time for a career change. In October 1999, she became a teacher assistant at Burlington County Special Services School District (BCSSSD).
“The teacher I assisted, Mr. Hensch, allowed me to teach English and History every day, and I fell in love with teaching,” Rhonda recalled. “I pursued my associate degree in education at Rowan College at Burlington County in 2000. What I loved most about RCBC was that there were adults my age attending as well. I truly found my experience at RCBC convenient, affordable, effective and rewarding. In addition to attending RCBC, I was also nominated as the student alumni board trustee upon graduation.”
The educational experience Palmer received at RCBC enabled her to transfer to Rowan University with ease. Upon graduation, Rhonda accepted a full-time teaching position at BCSSD. While teaching, she achieved her master’s degree, joined the N.J. Army National Guard and completed her doctorate degree in education.
Dr. Palmer retired in 2013 with 23 years combined military service. She has worked tirelessly while raising seven children to obtain four college degrees and still manage to make a difference in the youth of Burlington County. She has also fought breast cancer twice. Formerly the Director of Special Education at Camden Community Charter School, she currently serves as a Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant in Highland Park School District and as a Behaviorist at Adept Programs in Mount Holly.
Among her many accolades, Dr. Palmer received the Youth Achievers’ Committee 2013 President Excellence Award, the Mayor of Camden City 2013 Women of Purpose Award, the United States Army Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters. She was also the 2005-2006 Teacher of the Year for the Burlington County Special Services School District and was a member of the Special Education Delegation to Russia in 2008.
Although Dr. Palmer has led a highly rewarding and rigorous career path, the project that is dearest to her heart is founding the Michael J. Hawkins Transition Planning Services NJ Corporation, a non-profit organization that provides annual scholarships and a hands-on, community approach to SAT/ACT and military preparation, academic enrichment and career planning for youth as they transition from high school. The foundation was created in honor of one of her former students and mentee Michael Hawkins who was tragically killed in Camden in 2010.
“My lifelong mission is to pay it forward by providing the necessary services for our young people to transition into adulthood, ultimately enabling them to make positive and conscientious decisions for their future,” said Palmer.