Mary Rath used to throw herself entirely into her role as the mother of four.
But choices and chance have changed the situation considerably. Through adoption, Rath added five handicapped children, including two children with Down's syndrome, a child with cerebral palsy and two drug babies, to her family.
And then when her marriage went sour more than six years ago, the 44-year-old Rath grew determined to become a breadwinner as well.
While raising her nine children, Rath attended Rio Hondo College near Whittier. She was one of 300 students to graduate from the college nursing program last year.
Since its inception in 1970, the program has graduated more than 600 students, none of them more unlikely success stories than Rath, to hear her tell it.
"I was dependent, always the sick one with diabetes. I allowed people to make decisions for me," she said, although that did not prevent her from raising Scott, 24, Heather, 21, Chris, 17, and Alison, 11. Rath lost two other children shortly after birth. They died from complications related to her diabetes, she said.
In 1978, her lifelong diabetes worsened, making her almost completely blind. "I had to use a cane. I went to cooking classes for the blind," Rath recalled. "When Alison was a baby I could barely see the outline of her face. I would stick one of my fingers in her mouth and guide a spoon along that arm with my other hand to feed her."
An October, 1979, operation restored her sight. The struggle with blindness, however, figuratively opened her eyes to a new, more independent identity. "I found out I could do things myself. I felt better about myself," she said.
Rath said she and her husband decided to adopt handicapped children because "we felt like we'd been so blessed with what we had. We wanted to give a child like that a home."
Rath's new-found resiliency would be tested when marital problems led to a 1984 split-up and a 1987 divorce from her husband of about 20 years.
"When her husband left, everyone thought Mary would crumble," said Leslie Peterson, a friend who also raises handicapped children. "She wasn't used to making decisions on her own. She didn't have a career to fall back on."
The family scraped by financially with help from Rath's ex-husband, who paid child support.
Other assistance came from Rath's parents, family friends and state aid for her disabled children. But the existence was hand-to-mouth and too precarious for Rath.
Rath enrolled in the two-year nursing program. During the last part of her course work, Rath also worked half-time at Beverly Hospital as a vocational nurse, which requires less training than a registered nurse.
When Rath became more than a homemaker, her children had to become more than dependents.
"The kids had to learn to do things for themselves. The older kids had a lot of responsibilities," including helping to care for their younger siblings.
The handicapped children include Joshua, 10, and Jeremy, 8, who are brothers. They have Down's syndrome. Jenise, 8, has cerebral palsy and a mild mental retardation. "She was a drug baby," Rath said.
Daniel and Amanda, 3-year-old twins, were also drug babies. "Their mother used heroin and cocaine," Rath said. Adoption proceedings are still in progress for them.
Despite all the distractions, Rath made As and Bs in college. One instructor, however, failed Rath for having poor communications skills, an apparent result of her timidity.
"She was extremely shy," said her friend Peterson. "But a lot of that has changed."
Rath later took the same course again from the same instructor. She passed easily this time.
After passing a state examination last year, the Whittier native received her nursing certificate.
She now works as a registered nurse at Beverly Hospital in Montebello and hopes to begin master's work in nursing next fall at Cal State Los Angeles.
Rio Hondo College nursing professor Joanne Haskins describes Rath as a student with "tenacity, extremely bright and mature." She was always well-prepared, Haskins said.
The patients Rath cared for during her student training "held her in awe. She was great with them," Haskins said.
* Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District Supt. Robert Aguilar was the moderator of a panel of Latino superintendents at the recent National Assn. for Bilingual Eduacation annual conference in Washington. Aguilar led the group in a discussion of the Bush Adminstration bilingual education policies and Hispanic Americans.
* Jane Burbank has been appointed alumni director at Whittier College. Burbank, who replaces Susie Harvey, was graduated from the college in 1967. She received a master's degree in education from the college in 1970. Burbank is currently program coordinator in the postgraduate division of the USC School of Medicine.