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'I can't hate my past'

Like the rest of the students in her orientation group, Sabrina Podsobinski is looking forward to attending Southern Oregon University in the fall.

She's excited about the courses she's signed up for, and the new people she will meet on campus. She's even looking forward to the homework.

She is, however, anything but your average student.

Podsobinski and her two younger siblings were physically, mentally and emotionally abused for years by their mentally unstable mother, Valery Podsobinski, who authorities say kept them out of school, beat them with wooden spoons, spatulas, belts and force-fed them marijuana.

Despite the abuse and having no schooling for most of her childhood, Sabrina, now 25, has proven to be a survivor. She earned an associate degree from Rogue Community College in June and is now taking aim at a bachelor's degree at SOU.

Valery Podsobinski used intimidation and fear to control Sabrina and her siblings, to keep their lifestyle and abuse hidden, Sabrina said. The kids were told not to make friends or even to talk to other people and if any outsider made a connection with the family, they would promptly move.

Sabrina said she lived an almost nomadic existence for the majority of her childhood, crisscrossing the United States following her mother and her deluded dreams. Her mother at various times lived in a drug house, was a Deadhead follower of the Grateful Dead and lived in communal groups, including with the Rainbow family, Sabrina said.

A therapist who worked with Sabrina and her siblings for 21/2 years said that she has every reason to believe Sabrina's story and that all the siblings' stories about their upbringing were consistent. The therapist asked not to be identified.

The family would move around constantly, Sabrina said, never staying in one place more than a few months. Sometimes they would have a house, but more often than not they slept in tents, trailers, or the back of a car.

"We stayed under the radar because we never stayed in a house more than a couple months," Sabrina said. "I was exposed to a lot of things growing up." Her mother would sometimes take off for weeks or months at a time, Sabrina said, leaving her alone to care for her younger brother and sister.

One time her mother left for a festival with Sabrina's siblings, and was gone so long their landlord kicked her out of their house for not paying rent, Sabrina said. Sabrina managed to convince her mother's ex-boyfriend to take her in, and lived for months in a dilapidated school bus in the middle of the woods without running water or electricity. She was 13.

"I had to grow up," she said. "I was never a kid."

Things changed when the family moved to the Rogue Valley in 2003 when Sabrina was 16, she said. Sabrina had moved out the year before when they still lived in Northern California, but still lived close so she could take care of her brother and sister if they needed help.

Valery Podsobinski decided to send the kids to school after they moved, Sabrina said, so she enrolled at Ashland High School in the fall of 2003. It was her first time sitting at a desk, or even being in a classroom.

She quickly excelled in her classes, particularly art and theater, and even sang "Beethoven's Mass in C" with the Ashland High School choir in Carnegie Hall when she was 18.

After she graduated from Ashland High School she started taking classes at Rogue Community College, working full time to support herself. She had to drop out in 2006 when she couldn't afford classes, but went back in 2010 and graduated with an associate of arts degree in June 2012.

"I knew I wanted to pursue my education," she said. "I'm a lifelong learner, I think if you're not learning something new every day you're doing something wrong."

In January 2011 authorities discovered the abuse, and Sabrina's younger brother and sister were pulled from Valery, according to authorities.

In March a Jackson County grand jury indicted Valery Podsobinski on a dozen charges, eight of which were felonies. She also appeared in Jackson County Circuit Court, where she pleaded not guilty to the charges, and was booked into the Jackson County Jail and released on her own recognizance, court records show.

After months of postponement, Valery's trial was finally held on Jan. 19, 2012, when she accepted a plea bargain offered by the District Attorney's Office, Sabrina said. In exchange for pleading guilty to two possession of an illegal substance charges and two misdemeanor assault charges, the rest of the charges were dropped.

In the end, Valery was sentenced to five years of counseling for mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, domestic abuse and anger management. She was also ordered to have no contact with her children. Valery broke the no-contact order before she even left the courtroom, Sabrina said, and was immediately sentenced to 30 days in jail for contempt of the court.

Sabrina currently has custody of her 17-year-old sister, and says she will take care of her until she turns 18. Sabrina's brother lives with another family.

"I feel like my childhood advanced me as a person," Sabrina said. "It really made me a more understanding and diverse person. "… I can't hate my past, it really molded me into who I am."

Sabrina intends to double major in communication and psychology at SOU.

"Whenever something bad happens to you as a child, you can go one of two ways," she said. "You can fall back on it and use it as an excuse, or you can use it as a springboard, and I really try to use it as a springboard."

Nils Holst is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at holst.nils@gmail.com.

Sabrina Podsobinski was abused by her mother and kept out of school through most of her childhood, but has now graduated from Rogue Community College and is preparing to attend Southern Oregon University in the fall. - Bob Pennell