Mother of three, Brooke Mlaka finds balance between school and family thanks to support of Randolph College community
12/14/2009 1:00:31 PM
Chet White/The News & Advance
About five minutes into volleyball practice at Randolph College, Brooke Mlaka’s BlackBerry rings. Her son Gabriel, 12, has swine flu symptoms and her husband has to work, so Brooke must drive Gabriel to the doctor.
When her youngest, 10 year-old Dakota, got sick, he ran a temperature of 104.7 and was on the brink of hospitalization. With Gabriel, she’s taking no chances.
Volleyball must wait.
Brooke is an anomaly in varsity college sports. At 33, she’s more than a decade older than the rest of her teammates and seven years older than her coach. Her nickname is “Mama B.”
Between kids, classes and volleyball, Brooke manages to create order from chaos. When she finishes final exams next week, the mother of three (with a fourth on the way) will be three semesters away from earning the college degree that eluded her 15 years ago.
“I’ve had moments where I’m like, ‘I don’t know if it’s worth it or if I want to do this,” she says.
“But I’m a big, big believer of if you start something, you should finish it.”
‘Many moons ago’
In the fall of 1993, Brooke started her college education at Liberty University. She had a full scholarship to play volleyball and was set on pre-law.
“That was many moons ago,” she says. “A whole different life.”
After freshman year, Brook found out she was pregnant and dropped out of Liberty.
“It was very, very hard at the time,” she says.
“When you look back, obviously you wish you’d made more responsible decisions. But I wouldn’t change anything to have Chenoa and have the life I have now.”
Brooke got the idea to return to college from a friend and fellow volleyball player, Sweet Briar College volleyball coach Beth Huus.
When Huus learned that Brooke never earned her degree, she suggested, “Why not go back.” It was an off-the-cuff remark, but it resonated with Brooke, who, until then, had not given returning to college a serious thought.
“You just don’t think that way when you’re a mom of three,” she says. “You’re just going through life, doing what you’re doing.”
In the fall of 2008, Brooke enrolled at Sweet Briar and joined the volleyball team. It was a decision she made after a serious assessment of her financial situation, and with the blessing of her children and parents, who offered to help watch the kids when Brooke was in class.
Brooke – a single mom at the time – made ends meet by working in the billing department of her parent’s company, Moody Moving and Storage. Today, her husband of almost one year, Joe Mlaka, helps Brooke juggle school and family life.
She transferred to Randolph this fall because it made more sense academically and financially: Sweet Briar required a fifth year for an education degree, while Randolph’s program required just four.
Brooke has mapped out her remaining three semesters. If all goes smoothly, she will graduate from Randolph with a bachelor’s degree in education. After that, she plans to become a physical education teacher, a job she hopes will allow her to have more time with her kids, and a secure retirement.
In the spring of 2011 – 18 years after dropping out of Liberty – Brooke hopes to finish what she started.
On a typical morning, Brooke wakes up at 6 a.m. so she has enough time to make sure that she and her kids are ready for school.
But no morning is completely typical.
Today, a Tuesday in early November, she battled morning sickness and a mini-crisis, losing her textbooks under a pile of laundry.
Once the kids were at school, Brooke headed to Linkhorne Middle School to observe two phys ed classes – a requirement for her education major. Then she went to Randolph for three back-to-back classes, followed by a meeting with her academic advisor.
By 4:30 p.m., Brooke is home again, making meatballs in the kitchen with her youngest son. In the living room, her husband and two other children play a new video game, Modern Warfare 2.
Between everything Brooke juggles, keeping the house in order is the biggest challenge. The children have a weekly chore rotation, but the clutter still accumulates.
“The house is what suffers most. I mean we’re clean, but we have clutter,” she says.
This semsester, a new challenge has been the morning sickness, which zaps her usually boundless energy.
“I’m so tired. That’s the worst thing,” she says.
Brooke catches up on schoolwork in the early morning or after dinner, when the dishes are washed and the kids have settled down. She’s organized and meticulous, but like her younger peers, she says she “can procrastinate with the best of ’em.”
Driven to succeed
A support system of family, friends, professors and coaches has helped Brooke carve her path as a non-traditional student.
In the classroom and on the volleyball court, Brooke is treated no differently than her younger peers. But when extenuating circumstances arise, like two children coming down with swine flu, her professors and coach know that family comes first.
Brooke’s maturity and game experience is an asset on the volleyball court, says Randolph’s head coach, Johnathan Willis.
“She doesn’t get shaken by the trivial things,” Willis says.
Randolph education instructor Consuella Woods describes Brooke as a perfectionist. Woods says she has no doubt Brooke will finish her degree, even with the added challenge of having a baby due just days after exams end next semester.
“Knowing Brooke, she’ll be there in labor doing her exams. She’s just that driven.”
Brooke’s parents, Roger and Revonda Moody, are two of her biggest supporters. They have been regulars at Brooke’s volleyball games since she began playing at age 12, and are proud of her decision to return to school.
“I admire her greatly,” Roger says. “She’s got the determination of a mule. Once she sets her mind to do something, she gets it done, some how, some way.”
Brooke is undecided about whether she’ll play volleyball next fall.
“The competitive part of me says, ‘Absolutely yes. I will be there.’”
“But the mom part of me says, ‘Well, we got to make sure everything will be alright to do that.’”
In the mean time, she has more pressing concerns: three term papers, two projects and four final exams. After that: Christmas.
CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of Communications