June 8, 2012

GEDs for Free

Jennifer Bell talks about the process of getting her GED diploma while other students work on completing theirs Thursday at The Haven Shelter in Idaho Falls.One of the great moments of Jennifer Bell's life was receiving her GED diploma last fall.

It took a trip through hell for the 35-year-old to get to that point, though. The Idaho Falls resident dropped out of school at age 16 following the death of her father. Alcohol and methamphetamine ruled her life for years. She drifted.

A little more than a year ago, Bell decided she'd had enough. Her marriage had just fallen apart, and she had been arrested for a probation violation. Bell felt terribly alone and was teetering into self-destruct mode. "I'd finally hit rock bottom after so many years, and I had (to change) or I would die," she said. "It was a pretty easy choice ... (because) I'd pretty much lost everything." Bell found her salvation at The Haven Shelter, an Idaho Falls shelter for women and homeless families.

The Haven administrator Anne Johnson, her GED instructor Joanne Bates and several shelter employees helped Bell stay sober and introduced her to the shelter's GED program. "I've wanted to go into nursing for as long as I can remember, but obviously you can't get into any college courses without a GED," Bell said. "It had always stopped me because I wasn't sure about the whole 'process, how long it took or if I'd be able to pass it, so I never took that leap of faith." Haven employees took Bell through the GED preparation classes step by step with one-on-one tutoring. And they did it for free.

The shelter pays for the preparation course, the GED tests at Eastern Idaho Technical College and obtaining a form of state identification. It costs $150 to $200 per student.

The program provided Bell with a way to finally begin reaching for her dreams of having a career. "It was a big step to get where I wanted to be in my life," she said. "You can't really go very far without an education." Bell's story isn't unique to The Haven.

Since 2008, more than 1,100 students have enrolled in The Haven's GED program and 360 have completed it. Nearly another 100 students are well on their way to finishing. It's not an easy road for these students. Johnson refers to her students as the "missing." "These aren't traditional students that go to school right after college or people that wait awhile to go back to school," Johnson said. "This is the hardest population. ... These are not people that are used to walking into a place like EITC, it's very intimidating for them."

Most students don't actually live at The Haven or City of Refuge shelters. Many are simply low income individuals referred to the shelter by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare or job services. About half the people who have received diplomas are felons or on misdemeanor probation. Many juveniles on probation are recommended into the program by their probation officers. "If we can catch these kids and stop even a quarter of them from going into the adult criminal system, it would be huge," Johnson said.

One of the best parts of The Haven's program is its flexibility, Johnson said. Students have no time limit to finish their GED diploma, and they can start, stop and pick up where they left off at any time. "We don't care what they've done," Johnson said. "If they are ready to get on with stuff, we allow them to come back."

That policy proved very beneficial for 17-year-old Austin Colson. The Idaho Falls resident had to drop out of school because of discipline problems and drug use. He started the GED program at The Haven because he decided he wanted to go to college to become a diesel mechanic. "I wanted to be able to get a good job and have a good life," he said. Unfortunately, during the course, he had a drug relapse and had to go into rehab. The Haven's flexible policy allowed him to pick up where he left off when he got out of rehab. Colson has high hopes for the future, and he credits them to The Haven. "They pay for everything and they have teachers to help you understand things," Colson said. "They don't leave everything to you."

Bell is just starting to get her life back on track. Now that she has her GED diploma, she plans to apply for university courses and start studying to become a registered nurse. She has also found an apartment and is preparing to move out of The Haven. "I'm starting to rebuild a life worth living;" she said.

Article from Post Register, Friday June 8, 2012.

Community Action Agencies were established to fight the War on Poverty in 1964. Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership, located at 935 E Lincoln Rd in Idaho Falls serves the nine eastern Idaho counties with services to help low-income individuals become independent and self-sufficient. EICAP is one of over 1,000 Community Action Agencies in the United States that provide services to every county in the nation.