Rhonda Henson hasn’t always had it easy, but she’s always tried to make the best of things for both herself and those around her.
It’s something at which she excels. Henson, an avid photographer who loves to travel and socialize, has been known to put others before herself throughout much of her adult life. Henson volunteers frequently with outreach efforts through her church home at First Christian Church in Benton. Among those efforts include her work in the Stephen Ministry – a one-to-one guided effort to help share the burdens of those hurting and struggling through Christ-centered care. Henson also frequently participates in the Walk to Emmaus camps, which provide participants joined in small groups the chance to support each other in their ongoing walk with Christ.
In addition, Henson holds crafts seminars and classes through the church, providing a fun, family-friendly activity in which congregation members and friends can enjoy participating.
Longtime friend Jill Reynolds said Henson cares for the people in her life and is entirely selfless in her pursuits. Henson makes friends easily and is the kind of friend who will do anything she can to help someone who needs it.
“I can talk to her about anything and everything,” Reynolds said. “And she’ll help any way possible. She’s always been like that. Sometimes she’s not able to help, but she’ll give you her last dollar that’s for sure.”
Dependable. Caring. They are qualities that those who know her well say Henson has in spades. Longtime co-worker Daryl Lindsey said its something he’s seen throughout Henson’s tenure as a bus driver for the Marshall County School District. Henson, who began subbing in 1986 and driving full time in 1992, has always proven an asset to the district in a position that is often stressful.
“She’s been at this a long time,” Lindsey said. “And these kids wear on you on the bus like this, day in and day out. And that bus is hot; the kids are cranky and misbehaving, and that just puts stress on you. … She does (handle it well). … Of course she – bus drivers adopt their kids like family. They know them on a personal basis. They know their parents, might even have hauled their parents to school.”
Lindsey said Henson had never failed to take care of the bus she drove, nor the children in her charge. Professionally, Lindsey said Henson was a model employee and just all around nice person.
“From what I’ve seen from her, she’s just been a thoroughly good, professional bus driver,” Lindsey said. “… She’s good to the bus, don’t tear it up and takes good care of it. Reports everything that goes wrong with it. She’s just a good professional person in my opinion.”
And she made an impression on the students she transported. Henson genuinely cared about the kids on her route, growing concerned if a student did not catch the bus that day and becoming something of a “mother hen” to those who needed it.
Her oldest daughter, Areia Hathcock, said she’d been witness to those connections throughout the years.
“There’s several (kids) that I remember riding the bus with whenever I was riding, and they still stop by the house and keep in contact with her. She is friends with several of them on Facebook and kind of follows them. There’s a few that – I know one in particular just stopped by not too long ago.”
Her mother has a “big heart,” Hathcock said, and is never one to pass by someone in need without reaching out to lend a hand.
“Back when we were in elementary school … one of her childhood friends, I think they were kind of displaced from their home in West Virginia. They came and she opened the house to them, and they lived with us for several weeks.”
Henson’s work ethic, however, was one of the most influential character traits for her children. Hathcock said her mother always worked side jobs, including cleaning offices, in addition to driving the bus to ensure she and her three siblings had all they needed. Henson, she said, was primarily a single parent to her three daughters and son, which was often difficult.
“She cleaned multiple businesses,” Hathcock said. “I mean, for years we cleaned Calvert City Lumber Company, the Board of Education office out there, our church. And I think she cleaned a lot of houses, as well. That’s not to say we didn’t have help … but she always made sure that we had (what we needed). And if she couldn’t do it, she wasn’t too shy to ask Nanny and Granddad to help as well.”
It’s something she always appreciated, though there were times in her youth when their relationship was strained. Now, as Hathcock has grown and started a family of her own, she’s seen a deeper rooted faith in Henson, something she’s also witnessed as her mother has stepped up to meet the responsibility of caring for the needs of Henson’s aging parents.
Youngest daughter Aundrea Fralicx said Henson had provided for them more than material needs but good mother figure, too. Fralicx recalled fond childhood memories of things that in retrospect might not have been much, but Henson made it really something.
“I feel like she did a really good job, because we all turned out decent (people),” Fralicx said. “… Going on trips when we were young, traveling: I know that’s difficult with four kids, but we would always go to like, Garden of the Gods or go places like that, and she just always made it fun. Even though we might be sleeping in the van, she made it feel like it was a big deal to be, like, camping out in the van. She always made it fun.”
Fralicx has remained close to her mother throughout the years, looking at her as not only a mother but also a trusted friend. Fralicx said her mother had always been there for her, and for others that she’d known also.
“We’re pretty close,” Aundrea said. “I mean, I go over there about every day for lunch. I know she … babysits her grandkids, and … She has a good faith background, and she’s really active in church. She’s always wanting to help others. She does that a lot. If anybody ever calls her, she’s always there to help them.”
And friendship is one of the things she does best. Fralicx said her mother “never meets a stranger,” and often went out of her way to make people with whom she was unfamiliar feel welcome.
Reynolds said she has many fond memories of Henson throughout their relationship. In particular, she recalled a time when Henson talked her into taking a trip together.
“About seven years ago, she wanted to go on a trip to Chicago, and I’m not a big traveler at all,” Reynolds said. “So, I told her, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ So I let her do the whole itinerary. She planned when we got on the train, we took the train from Carbondale, and planned the hotel. We stayed about a week, I guess.
“She about wore me out,” Reynolds joked. “But I toughed it out with her. … I guess that’s my last trip I’ve been anywhere. … But, you know, I had a really big time.”
Now, Henson is preparing to enter a new chapter in her life. Reynolds said Henson will retire from her position as a bus driver for the district Oct. 1, though she still likely won’t be found idle. Ever busy, Reynolds said Henson had done taxes on the side for several years, an avenue she’d used to help many in the community. Sometimes at her own expense.
“You just wouldn’t believe how many people she does (their taxes) for free that can’t afford it,” Reynolds said. “She’ll just say, ‘I’ve been there.’”
Now, she’ll likely continue with it full time. Reynolds said Henson had stepped in to assist clients of a local tax agent who passed away. The list of clients was long, and it was a big endeavor. Reynolds said some of those clients would continue on with Henson, but for her it was just about stepping up to help those individuals who had been left without their trusted accounting services and now found themselves in potentially stressful situations. Thinking of others, she said, was just her way.
“The ones of us that know her, they know she’s big hearted,” Reynolds said. “ … She tries to fix everybody and help in different ways. Anyway she can. She’s always done that.”