Like many young people, Patrick Sykes left high school before graduating. That decision set him on a course of underachievement and low earnings in such jobs as a construction laborer and fast food manager.
A work accident while he was employed as a painter resulted in severe shoulder injuries. After surgeries, the shoulder did not improve. Doctors told him that he would not have a complete recovery, and he was through as a painter. With no employment options, he came to GPLC to get a GED. He decided to find a career that would use his brain rather than his physical strength, and GPLC was the place to begin.
“My GPLC tutor was knowledgeable, patient and paid attention to the academic areas I needed extra help with,” he said.
Sykes earned his GED in April 2012. With new-found confidence he enrolled in a Chemical Laboratory Technician training program. “It was a deep pool for me to jump into, but I was determined to challenge myself,” said Patrick. He completed an associate's degree in chemistry and is currently employed full-time as a laboratory technician, where he is directly responsible for sample integrity.
According to Patrick, “The moment I contacted GPLC, I felt a certain sense of accomplishment and confidence that fed my will to strive for higher goals, which in turn, fed my desire to accomplish more and…I think you get the idea. GPLC was the one thing in the beginning that got the ball rolling. It was the critical piece to my success.”
Why did you start volunteering?
About five or six years ago I was inspired by Joel Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now. In it there’s a well-written chapter on giving to others.
Why do you continue to volunteer?
I haven’t discovered an activity quite as rewarding as this.
What do you get out of volunteering?
The reward is in the knowing that you are helping someone without expecting them to return the gesture.
What advice do you have for new volunteers?
It seemed like such a long time ago that I studied the English language, so I was concerned about recalling all the rules and nuances, and then being able to explain them to a student. My advice is not to worry because the materials, training, support from GPLC staff, and just being with your student(s) ensure that you have everything you need to be successful in tutoring.
What have you learned from your students?
Two things I’ve learned stand out:
1) How easy it is to prepare a lesson plan week to week just based on your student’s life and conversation; and your knowledge, training and creativity.
2) Since my student is from the largest town in Northeast China, I’ve learned a great deal about someplace half a world away without actually having visited. So I would say the cultural exchange is definitely a benefit.
What have you learned from being a volunteer tutor?
I’ve learned to develop a lesson plan that is engaging, not overbearing, applicable, memorable, enjoyable and appropriate for my student. Also, I’ve learned just how difficult a language English can be to learn and practice.
From the beginning school wasn’t exactly the place that Nate wanted to be. He unexpectedly advanced to the next grade. He did so, not by doing well in school, but by misbehaving. He said, “School was pretty much a bust for me. Teachers would pass me just to get rid of me. It was a good set-up. I kept acting up....and teachers kept passing me.” With no literacy skills, he began working at the age of 14, taking mostly low-paying laborer positions where literacy skills didn’t matter.
Nate realized that getting out of school this way was not only counter-productive, but it was not the way he wanted to live.
He enrolled at GPLC, and a short time later he was matched with his first tutor. He and his volunteer tutor had to start from the beginning. Nate knew that this would not be easy, and he would have to stay focused and work hard. “I had some really nice teachers in school, but my volunteer tutor was different. My tutor was actually interested in me and where I wanted to go in life.” Having his tutor’s undivided attention and knowing that she cared inspired him to keep moving forward.
Although it was a long road to travel, Nate worked hard with his GPLC tutor and later in a GED class offered by GPLC. He also worked hard in his personal life preparing for a much brighter future. Just before his 29th birthday, Nate found himself taking the GED exam. He passed the exam and he attends college now. “Everything I do, from math to writing essays, came from the background I got at GPLC.”
So what’s next for Nate? “I’ve always had a dream to become a business owner. That might seem impossible, but I don’t think so. At one time reading and writing were impossible.”UPDATE: In May 2015 Nate graduated from Community College of Allegheny County with a degree in business administration. He will continue his education at Carlow University. Congratulations, Nate!
After being out of school for eight years, Alishia Knight, a mother of two young children, came to GPLC. She completed her GED studies and successfully passed the tests for a high school equivalency. In fact, Alishia completed the five parts of the GED test within a few months since her motivation was extremely high. Currently, she’s a student at the Community College of Allegheny County.
Alishia has two jobs to provide for her family’s needs – as she put it, “because kids aren’t raised on air.” However, she’s trying to achieve more than a subsistence wage at part-time jobs. “This is more about providing an example to my girls. I don’t want them to do what I did, to be out of school for a long time. I want to show them that they can achieve what they want and have the things they want to have.”
For Alishia that means a career as a veterinary technician, “a stable job and a stable home where I can raise stable children.
Everything that GPLC provides helps me to develop. Weak becomes strong, and strong becomes stronger. I’m telling everyone I know about this great program that’s helping me and my family.”
Felix Bacot Mena
Felix Bacot Mena came to the Downtown Center of Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC) in 2012. He was a recent immigrant from Cuba and spoke very little English. Even though his communication was limited, Felix’s eagerness was outstanding. He wanted to take every class that was available. He was never afraid to make a mistake and practiced his English with everyone he met. He was always ready with a question about something he saw on TV or something he heard on the bus.
As his English improved, Felix was able to express himself more easily. He delighted in the newness of everything American and was able to share his joy for learning with staff and other students.
Felix began to tell us about his former life in Cuba and how he wasn’t free to live the life that he desired. He spoke about making the decision to leave and his long journey to America. Once here, Felix looked at his new life as an opportunity for a new education. He hit the ground running and never stopped.
Felix has improved his English level from low beginning to advanced. He was able to get his own apartment and, through his constant studying and learning, was able to obtain a job in his career field with the Bank of New York Mellon. Felix plans to continue his education at college and to get a degree in accounting. Thanks to hard work and GPLC, he is realizing his American dream.
For Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council students who are parents, attending classes has a profound effect on their children’s lives.
Gladys came to Pittsburgh from Cameroon, Africa, with little formal education and almost no English language skills. In order to support her family, she worked two menial jobs and also attended classes at our Downtown teaching center, first to master English and then to earn a GED diploma.
This was not an easy task. Her teacher, Nancy, explains, “Gladys mastered a foreign language, and then studied for and passed a very demanding test in that language. It’s a test that covers writing, reading, math, history, social studies and science.”
Gladys earned her GED credential in 2010 and went on to obtain additional training to become a nursing assistant. While she wanted to continue her education, she chose to put her plans on hold to ensure her son, DeKlerk, had an opportunity to attend college.
DeKlerk, unlike his mother, attended American schools. He excelled, especially at math, and his stronger academic base even enabled him to help Gladys with homework. “When I would have trouble with something I learned at GPLC, he would help me with it at home,” Gladys says.
He also took strength from her example. “DeKlerk saw how tired I was at the end of the day, after working two jobs and going to school,” Gladys says. “That made him work harder.”
DeKlerk recently earned a degree in biochemistry from Temple University. Inspired by his mother’s experience, he is currently serving in GPLC’s AmeriCorps service program at the Squirrel Hill Health Center ensuring immigrants receive the services they need. He plans to attend medical school.
Gladys has not given up on her dream either. She hopes to continue her studies and become a licensed practical nurse.
For Richard, a native of Rwanda, education changed everything. After being granted asylum in the United States, Richard arrived in Pittsburgh with a passion for learning. “At the time of the genocide, seventy-five percent of people in my home country had no access to education. It is lack of education that caused the genocide,” Richard says. More than twenty years have passed since the violence erupted in Richard’s hometown of Kigali, and the loss of his father and family members still haunts him.
At Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Richard found the support system he needed in Donna Schulte, a volunteer tutor, who quickly became his greatest supporter. For three years, Richard met with Donna for English as a Second Language lessons. Their weekly sessions focused on reading and writing skills as well as preparation for the U.S. citizenship test, which Richard recently passed.
Richard currently attends classes in electrical engineering, and he will graduate next spring. His dream is to earn an engineering degree and a master’s in project management.
He has never forgotten his roots and where he comes from. Inspired by the generosity of many individuals who helped him along his journey, Richard has started a non-profit, The Bridge to Hope. Its mission is to provide aid to children in Africa by collecting gently used clothes, shoes, and books. On a visit to Rwanda, Richard brought sixty pairs of donated shoes that he distributed to local children so that they could play soccer without injuring their feet. For many of the children, it was their first pair of shoes.
“What I have achieved in Pittsburgh, I never thought I could achieve in my lifetime,” Richard says.
Returning to the classroom after more than 10 years away, James found the instructor he needed at GPLC. “Having one-on-one attention from a teacher makes a big difference,” James says. “You can tell my teacher, Kathy, really enjoys her job.”
An avid fisherman, James often arrived downtown more than an hour before his morning classes began in order to cast his line at Point State Park. “It’s challenging,” he says of fishing. “It teaches you patience.”
Patience comes in handy for many of our GED preparation students. However, James’ positive outlook and commitment to attaining his diploma helped him to pass the exam after only four months of study! James acknowledges that his work ethic comes from his grandmother, who shared with him the difficulties of life growing up in the Great Depression. Working meant more than just having a job to go to; it was about survival. James describes himself as a “go-to guy” – the co-worker who knows a little bit about everything. Over the years, he has worked several jobs, from a grocery store associate to laborer positions. After addressing a health concern, and losing his job along the way, James knew it was time to work on his education.
For many Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council students, the math section of the GED exam is the toughest, and James will agree. His hard work and preparation paid off, and James was honored to participate in our GED Graduation Celebration in September.
James is inspired by his brother, who is currently enrolled in a training program to become a chemical laboratory technician, and looks forward to continuing his own education. His goal is to study for a degree in science.