Liz Mellon, a struggling high school senior, dropped out of school just a couple of credits shy of graduation.
“I just gave up, I said forget it,” Mellon, now 21, says.
She may have never finished her studies and could have been left behind by her diploma- and degree-seeking peers. Then a life-changing event motivated her to earn a GED — she became pregnant.
Not wanting to spend her life in low-paying, dead-end work, Mellon turned to Literacy Center West, a GED preparatory, job training and placement center in East Price Hill.
“I had no clue how to get a GED until I found this place in the phone book,” Mellon says.
The growing and evolving nonprofit has been serving low-income Cincinnatians seeking to improve their lives since 1988.
In 2002, the center changed its main focus from offering basic literacy services to preparing young people for the work world through GED prep and its “The Next Level” program.
The program prepares young adults for steady employment by teaching the job prep basics, from properly filling out an application to interviewing and resume writing skills. All services are free for income qualifying men and women aged 17 to 21.
Each year 100 people go through The Next Level, about 25 at any given time. Many are like Mellon, who stumbled early in life but now have family responsibilities spurring them to make changes. Pairing GED and job training — with an emphasis on getting work quickly — is a good fit for them.
“With this population they’re young, but have a lot of responsibilities … they have a lot of children to take care of. It’s not feasible for them to just sit and not work. We get them started immediately on their GED studies, but we also start immediately with the jobs workshops,” says Stephanie Dunlap, the center’s assistant director and a former CityBeat staff writer.
“Once they start working, they can come to morning or evening classes. At that point GED classes become voluntary because there is nothing we can or would want to do to affect their work situation.”
The center holds evening adult GED prep for any age at night, and being enrolled in The Next Level isn’t a requisite for taking night classes.
Literacy Center West has changed the lives of hundreds like Mellon, who earned her GED through the center and now is studying at Cincinnati Christian University.
Mellon and her one-year-old son reside in Living Hope Transitional Home, for single homeless mothers. Her journey from high school dropout to college student took less than a year.
Coming to the center in December 2008, it took her about two weeks to prepare, take and pass the GED test.
Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in a five-week Health Professions Academy offered by Great Oaks Institute. She studied to be a nurse’s aid and was offered a job at Jewish Hospital in April. She left Jewish Hospital earlier this year to pursue a graduate degree at Cincinnati Christian, where she’s studying nursing and psychology. Her ultimate goal is to work in mental health at a Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
Her new life is rewarding, but not easy, she admits. “It’s kind of hectic juggling everything, but I’m getting into the groove, I guess.”
Literacy Center West is there to help young folks find their groove, meeting them at a pivotal time in life. Although some come to the center of their own accord, others go through the programs after run-ins with the law. The center provides court-ordered GED prep classes for adults on probation through a federal workforce program administered by Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services. Students attend two three-hour classes a week in addition to independent, customized study.
“We catch them at that really crucial time when they could spin off in one direction and end up with a lifetime of incarceration, or spin off in the other direction when this was a blip on their path,” Dunlap says.
Students come to the Literacy Center facing challenges that many wealthier and privileged adults, with family support, could never imagine. Some live on the streets or in their cars and others have mental health or substance abuse problems. All students come through the center’s doors hoping to turn their lives around, but the truth is not all make it.
“There are usually four (barriers) that have challenged our youth. That’s lack of transportation, lack of a GED or high school diploma, a (criminal) background and inability to pass a drug test. But I would say the fifth, a huge barrier, is homelessness. They’re drifting and couch surfing. If you don’t have a place to put your clothes, then it’s really hard to put in a good show at work,” Dunlap says.
The center does what it can to help get students working. Among the skills taught are how to find jobs and questions to ask potential employers before committing to an interview. To help ease the transportation barrier, the center offers students bus tokens until their first paycheck.
Job training and GED prep is intense, but fairly quick. Job training workshops require several hours of dedication for about two weeks. GED Prep can take longer depending on the student’s learning assessment level.
“They complete the (job training) workshops in two weeks, and by the third they should have a job,” Dunlap says. “We will go out and talk to employers and set up interviews. We have existing relationships with friendly employers who support our mission, and we also go out and speak to employers individually on behalf of each individual student.”
The center helps students get jobs in a variety of sectors from retail to sit-down dining to healthcare. The center’s partnership with Great Oaks was most attractive to Mellon, who says her path to college wouldn’t have been possible without help from the center. Now her child will have a chance at a life she didn’t have as a youngster.
“I knew to get the kind of life I wanted for him I would have to go to college and get a better job than waitressing for the rest of my life,” Mellon says. “The center was the first step in getting where we can live in a good school district, and he’ll have everything he needs.”
Literacy Center West
Founded: 1988; offers GED prep and job training, placement and career advancement services for young adults 17-21. Night GED prep for any age.
Located: 3015 Phillips Ave., East Price Hill
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday
Online: www.litcenterwest.org For more information or to make a program donation: 513-244-5062