Lenore Rutherford, The Union Democrat

Yolanda Costarella has a history of turning obstacles into opportunities, starting with her childhood.

She was born in Vallejo on California Admission Day, Sept. 9, 1939, while her father was a sailor. He later was transferred to Long Beach, then became a union organizer. That's where Costarella's mother decided to run away from the marriage, hiding herself and their child in San Francisco.

Costarella didn't see her father again until she was grown and found out he had been looking for her while she was looking for him.

Costarella, 73, was about 8 years old when her mother left her father, and she loved the freedom of living in San Francisco. She would sit on the steps of the North Beach area corner grocery store near where they lived and listen to the stories the old Italian men told.

One day, she noticed a woman had trouble carrying her groceries home and offered to help. The woman ended up paying her for her trouble, and that was the beginning of her money making days.

"I had more money than any of the other kids," she said. "I'd take the bus all over the city. I loved going to Playland."

It didn't take long, though, before her mother decided it was dangerous to have the little girl wandering the city while mom was working, so she put her in a Dominican convent to live and attend school. She was there for about two years the first time.

"Mom was a waitress, and I think she did a little modeling, too," Costarella said.

"I liked the nuns," she said. "I learned from them that they did as they preached. They were good role models, and I respected them. They were strict but loving."

She was 10 when she moved back with her mother for a while. This time, she would hang around vegetable wagons, where vendors sold their goods. She offered to carry the produce home for their customers, and was soon making her own money again.

By now, one of her favorite activities was paying for all the neighborhood kids to go to the movies on weekends. Her mother soon decided for the second time that she would be better off in the convent.

She said she was about 12 when her mother took her out of the convent for the second time, and they moved to Charleston, S.C. They arrived during a hurricane and Costarella was berated by a bus driver for offering to give her seat to a black woman.

Costarella wanted to return to San Francisco, but that wouldn't happen for many years.

She was about 13 when she got a job at the Piggy Park Drive-in in Charleston.When she was 14, her mother left town, but by that time, Costarella had become comfortable there didn't think she needed her mother. She refused to go with her. "I was paying my own rent and paying all my bills," she said. "I was even loaning people money."

Her mother and grandmother turned her into the South Carolina equivalent of Child Welfare Services, and they were going to put her in a foster home. Instead, she lied about her age and married a 22-year-old sailor, Joe Porter. "I lied to him about my age, too," she said. "I was on my own, so it was easy for people to believe I was older."

While her children were small, she became a licensed nursery school provider in South Carolina to make ends meet.

"I'll tell you, honey, I could always make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," she said.

They were divorced when she was 28 years old, not long after the family moved back to the Bay Area.

She has four children from the marriage: Ramona Jean Porter, 57, of Belgium, Mark Porter, 52, of Sonora, Jo Porter, 50, of Oregon, and John Porter, 49, of Columbia; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

When she returned to the Bay Area, where her father lived, she noticed most of his relatives were well educated, and the more educated people were, the better jobs, houses and cars they had.

So her next goal was to become educated. Fortunately, her ambition for learning coincided with the Women's Liberation Movement and Equal Rights Amendment. Otherwise, she might not have had the chance to go to college, she said, because of lack of money and education.

Although she was constantly being told she was intelligent, a large part of her childhood was spent not going to school. There were many holes in her knowledge of basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

At age 30, she began taking classes at the College of Alameda, where her instructors soon learned she couldn't read or write. One teacher donated time after school to read assignments to her, and she had to make all of her reports orally for the first few months. She soon learned, though, and ended up graduating with honors in 1972 with associate's degrees in education and business.

From there she went to the prestigious Mills College in Oakland on a full scholarship. She got a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology, a minor in women's history and a teaching degree in early childhood education in 1974.

She did graduate work in applied psychology in 1974-75 at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco.

She worked all through college to raise her children. Mostly, she worked on campus, doing such things as tutoring and being a teacher's aide.

Other jobs included working for the Alameda County Health Department. She said the other students and teachers, who were from a much more affluent world than she had ever known, were always kind to her.

"I found educated people were not as judgmental as uneducated people," she said.

Soon after graduation, she went to work for the Alameda County Welfare Department as an eligibility technician, but she quit before long because General Motors was looking for women to be line supervisors. She made $3,000 a month plus benefits, which was like being very rich to her.

Again, it was a sign of the times, with big business obeying the Equal Rights Amendment.

She supervised 46 to 70 employees from 1976 to 1979.

"I learned a lot at GM that I used later as a corrections officer and parole agent," she said, "but they closed the plant in 1979."

Her next jobs were at FMC Corp. in San Jose, supervising 32 union employees, and at Varian Associates in Palo Alto as a machine tool specialist.

Her career with law enforcement began as a correctional officer for Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, where she worked from 1984 to 1988. She then did a project as a staff services analyst for the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento for six months.

She was a parole agent with the Department of Corrections from 1989 until her retirement in 1998.

Always competitive, she earned 15 medals - 10 of them gold - during the California Police Summer Games in San Diego and the California Department of Corrections Summer Games in Bakersfield in 1991.

Never one to sit back and do nothing, she didn't change in retirement.

Fitness is one of her passions. She has been active in power lifting, swimming, arm wrestling and bicycling. She still mows her own lawns and maintains her own raised garden beds.

She manages her property in rural Columbia, which she said includes 12 acres and five houses.

Dancing is one of her passions. She goes to Black Oak Casino about twice a week to dance, without a partner by choice. She even convinced organizers of Columbia State Historic Park's annual Big Band Street Dance to incorporate a category for dancing without a partner into its dance contest a couple of years ago, and she won the category.

She also danced at the Senior Lounge on North Washington Street on North Washington Street in Sonora once a week for several years.

She recently designed a Columbia College class to help women face challenges, overcome adversity and make contributions to society.

Much of her life now is devoted to three dogs, Queen Maxi and Princess Mini, both 17 years old, and Sunny, 4. The 17-year-olds were given to her by the dying mother of a man on parole that she worked with many years ago.

"She said she knew I would take good care of them," Costarella said, and I have."

Costarella said her main goal in life is to always make things better, set a good example and make the community a better place with her energy.

"I didn't get the perfect upbringing, thank God," she said. "It made me strong. I am so glad I wasn't protected to death."