A recent graduate of a GED (general equivalency diploma) program in Washington County doesn't think she's an inspiration to others, but her GED instructor, Tessa Ftorek, disagrees. Ftorek has been working at Washington County Community College for the last 15 years to help others earn their GED.
Ftorek's recent graduate is a young woman who has successfully fought a drug problem that had consumed her life for 10 years after she dropped out of high school. Now 38, Billy Jean (Bonness) Sowers of Baring not only earned her GED but is now enrolled in the medical assisting program at WCCC. "I was really ready for trying to get my GED," says Sowers. "I had quit Woodland High School when I was a junior and moved out of my parents' house, moved in with a guy, and got pregnant right away with my son, Jordan."
She didn't stay very long with her son's father and was "back and forth" to her parents' house. She also started taking the prescription drug Oxycontin and discovered that she couldn't live without it. "I was scamming to get enough money to buy the drugs, but it's such a haze I can't remember how I did it. After a while, I got so tired of hunting for drugs and of getting sick, I decided I needed to clean myself up."
The Discovery House clinic opened in Calais in April 2005, and Sowers walked through the doors in July. "I used it correctly, and I cleaned myself up," she stresses. "Discovery House gets a bad rap, but if you go there and do what you're supposed to, and follow the rules, you'll do fine."
Sowers was nervous about getting her GED, but instructor Ftorek calmed her fears. "I loved her. Tess is such a sweetheart. I was so scared when I went in, but it was not as hard as I thought it would be."
Ftorek did not know Sowers' back story until the student described her former life in an essay written for the GED test. "I told her what my goal was for the next five years, and Tessa told me how proud she was of me."
She plans to graduate from her medical assisting course in 2014 and wants to tackle a job in the medical field, although Sowers is not sure which one yet. "I was in such a bad place in my life that I'm feeling good now."
Sowers doesn't feel like she's an inspiration to others who worry about going back to school after dropping out, but Ftorek disagrees. "I'm very proud of her."
Ftorek has many years of teaching under her belt and tries to calm the fears of all the students in the GED program. "My attitude is that they are going to get their GED, and I emphasize 'When you get it, what are your future plans?'"
She has assisted an equal number of male and female students over the years, ranging in age from 17 to the late 70s.
"Now they want to further their school because of the military or personal enrichment," reports Ftorek. "One woman said she wanted to be able to tell her kids that she got her GED."
Students must pass tests in the subjects of reading, math, social studies, science and language arts, and, if they are having problems with any subject Ftorek sends them to a tutor.
"I want to emphasize that everything is free," she says of any assistance from herself of other teachers. "There is no fee charged."
There is a rolling admission for GED students, so they may begin the process at any time, and tests are given two days a month.
"I absolutely love working with this population," Ftorek emphasizes. "They're fragile. They dropped out of school because they got pregnant, or they got someone pregnant, they had a drug or alcohol problem, or because they didn't get along with their teachers. I try to put them at ease and get them to work at their own pace. Put them in the driver's seat."
Describing herself as a sentimentalist, Ftorek recalls an e-mail she received from a young man in his mid-30s who had been her student. "He said, 'You probably don't remember me, but I want you to know how much I appreciated your help' and told me he'd graduated from college and had a wonderful job at a bank."
Ftorek would like future students to know that 2013 will be the last year in which pencils and paper will be used in testing.
"The tests in 2014 will be computerized."
Along with Ftorek's GED work, there are a number of other programs for young and old in Downeast Maine and New Brunswick that help develop literacy skills in adults and children.
Increasing attainable education
Machias Adult Education and Literacy Volunteers of Washington County are working together as Countywide Adult Learning and Literacy (CALL) to provide supportive services for those seeking their GED, looking to brush up on their study skills in preparation for attending post-secondary education class and looking for qualified tutoring assistance on a wide variety of topics.
"[These] are now available in Dennysville on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lincoln Memorial Library, as well as Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the adult ed office in Machias and 6 to 9 p.m. at Machias Memorial High School," reports Eileen Campbell, director of Literacy Volunteers of Washington County and the Machias Adult Education program.
"This is an attempt to do outreach. We have 28% of the Washington County population not reading above fourth grade level. There are a lot of people out there without GEDs."
"We're trying to increase attainable education," says Campbell. She reports there is tutoring available at Pleasant Point and Indian Township, "but there are no literacy volunteers in Eastport now. Ideally, it would be good to have two of them. We're not asking for a lot of time -- three hours a week."
One way to battle illiteracy is to introduce youngsters to reading as early as possible, and Campbell lauds the Imagination Library program in which Washington County children get free books in the mail.
"We have 28% of the Washington County population not reading beyond the fourth grade level, so what if 15% of that number are raising children?" she asks. "We know they weren't buying books for their children, and there was no printed word or art in those homes, but they can read baby books to the kids and get their confidence up. We hope that some young moms and dads get enough confidence to want to get their GEDs."
"One woman in her 60s told me she had never owned a book when she was little."
Importance of reading
"Parents need to realize the importance of reading to their child," agrees Cindy Thompson, the Machias Memorial High School librarian who is chairperson of a recently reorganized Literacy Team that wants to foster new ideas and collaborate with similar community groups. "It's not only good to be able to read, but they need the ability to understand and analyze what they read."
"We need to look at the big picture -- from infancy to adulthood," she stresses.
Among the people attending the first two meetings of Thompson's Literary Team were representatives from Positivity Nation, Maine Family Literacy Volunteers and Sunrise Senior College, as well as parents, a principal, several local librarians and a grandmother who is a grant writer.
"It's common knowledge that in this area poverty is responsible for a lot of the literacy issues, so we try to figure out how students could be better prepared," says Thompson. "We need a vision. What would our classrooms look like in a perfect world? We need an inventory of assets in our community. What's working? What's lacking?"
Thompson recalls a recent visit to Bay Ridge Elementary School in Cutler where there is a "beautiful" library and dedicated volunteer librarian, but there are no resources to buy books. "It's a huge issue," she points out. "A lot of the books they have are outdated."
Helping Charlotte County families
The Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick oversees a program that currently has 17 offices throughout the province working with youngsters who are developmentally delayed.
"I work with children age zero to six years," says Angela Gowan, executive director of Charlotte County Early Intervention. "I develop assessments on them after there have been referrals from public health or social development professionals. I go to their homes and work with their parents on what the concerns are and what they can do to improve, whether that's speech therapy or occupational or physical and recommend that they see a doctor or pediatrician."
"These children have blips in their development that need attention, and if we can catch them early enough, we will often correct that blip before they go to school," she says. "It's harder to get one-on-one with them if [the problem] isn't caught in the pre-school years."
Gowan, who works out of St. Stephen, says her staff of three full-time and two part-time employees are very dedicated and very highly skilled. "One of them has been here for 19 years."
"The community is aware of our services and we are being utilized," she stresses.