Education and training are often cited as the keys to success in today’s job market. But many lack the high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate that would allow them to pursue those options. In Rockford, new initiatives by a partnership led by Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois aim to help. They’re about more than the academics.
Angelina Riportella stands outside the Goodwill Service Center on North Longwood Street in Rockford, home of Goodwill’s new GoodGRADS program. Riportella says as a single mother of two small children, she wanted to better her situation, but without a diploma or GED certificate, her choices were limited.
“Without a GED you’re not going anywhere with your life. You’re not going to be able to do anything. I’m not going to be able to get a job to support my children. (I‘m) not going to be able to go to school.”
But with two kids to raise, she says, even with a lot of help from her parents, preparing for the GED seem a remote possibility at best. But, she says, thanks to a number of good people, including those at Goodwill, she was able to do that in time for her birthday this summer.
“It was like something supernatural. It was awesome.”
She even received a scholarship from Goodwill that paid for the tests, something she says was a big help. And now she’s set to begin classes at Rock Valley College.
It’s a wonderful story. Now Goodwill is trying to replicate the success Angelina and others like her in Rockford have had on a larger scale with the GoodGRADS program. The GRADS in GoodGRADS stands for GED Readiness and Developmental Services. The program is a collaboration that includes Rockford Public Schools, Rock Valley College, the Literacy Council, the Workforce Investment Board and the YMCA of Rock River Valley as partners. As Goodwill’s director of mission services Courtney Geiger describes it, the program grew out of a realization that, like Angelina, a lot of people were being held back from a GED for a number of reasons.
"We'll be providing the educational services for those students who aren't ready for a GED prep course. But we're also providing wraparound case management services. So every student will have a case manager that's going to help them with transportation issues, child care, employment and those things that come up in life that, if you don't know how to handle them, might cause you to drop out because you have to focus on resolving them."
Amanda Smith is Director of Adult Education and Literacy Programs at Rock Valley College. She’s all for the new program. She says Rock Valley has had an extensive GED program for years, but it’s never enough.
“We served a thousand students last year in our program, and there’s forty thousand potential students in the area who need their GED. And so, you know, even though you might think, well, we served a thousand students, that’s awesome, and it is, it’s only two and half percent.”
Geiger says the aim is to work closely with the program at Rock Valley and others like it, so that people will be given the best match for their needs.
Geiger says Goodwill discovered that there was another reason some people don’t get a GED -- a financial one.
Brian Reck is chairman of the board for Goodwill Northern Illinois. He says he and the others on the board have been impressed by the vision and hard work Goodwill staff and others have put into the program. But they came to see that, by itself, it might not be enough, and with help from business and private donors, a scholarship program was set up.
“It’s certainly an eye-opener to really realize that there are financial barriers that can go as low as fifty dollars for people to consider not taking a test that could really advance their futures.”
Goodwill has historically been known for its work helping the physically and developmentally disabled. Sam Schmitz is President of Goodwill Northern Illinois. Schmitz says GoodGRADS and the scholarships are a logical continuation of what the organization is about.
“our mission is to assist people with barriers find meaningful employment and we think this is a very positive step towards helping us meet our mission.”
Geiger says due to the labor-intensive nature of the program, GoodGRADS can only accommodate a few dozen students in class right now, with fifty to a hundred in case management. There’s enough in the scholarship pool at this time to help a few hundred. Geiger says there are plans to expand both as funds become available.
For her part, Angelina is grateful for the help she received, and ready to take advantage of the opportunity she’s been given. She says she knows she still has lot of work ahead of her, but she has plenty of motivation-her kids.
“Because if I don’t better myself, and get a good job and a good education, then they’re not going to have anything. And they deserve the best in the world.”
And for her and so many others, it all begins with the GED.
(Note: Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois, Rock Valley College and the YMCA of Rock River Valley are all underwriters with WNIJ.)