Tender, Loving Connection

The Learning Connection graduates 103 Southeast residents; staff members share the importance of community

Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Graduation season has arrived - and not just for traditional institutions. On Friday, 103 Southeast residents, 66 from Juneau, earned their GEDs from The Learning Connection and 14 graduated from the Alaska Vocational Institute.

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

Under the theme "Celebrate Success," TLC hosted Stroller White Pipes & Drums and Rep. Cathy Muñoz at its annual GED Graduation at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. Executive Director Sheryl Wineburg welcomed the crowd, and Muñoz spoke encouraging words of advice to the graduates.

"Work hard, be mindful of your opportunites ... be willing to focus intently on your goals and approach each day with a thankful heart," Muñoz said.

TLC, a division of SERRC-Alaska's Educational Resource Center, has four locations in Juneau and two at the University of Alaska Southeast's Ketchikan and Sitka campuses. The organization operates the Alaska Vocational Institute and provides a plethora of basic adult education services, including English as a Second Language classes and computer and job skills training. TLC also offers family education programs, early childhood education, in-school support and an after-school homework club.

In the past five years, TLC has granted approximately 900 adults with their GEDs, said SERRC communications director Joan Pardes.

"Building a better life through education has such value at any stage," said Pardes, who has been with SERRC since 2000. "As far as without a basic education and without the skills to compete in today's job market, people are really at a loss."

From state to federal employees, 16-year-olds to seniors or simply people who have never turned on a computer, TLC staff and volunteers must accommodate a variety of students.

"Our tagline is helping people build a better life through education, and we have an amazing group of employees who do that," Pardes said. "They just make everyone feel comfortable. They are truly gifted to be able to encourage and teach students of all different abilities."

Aside from its 15 GED testing sites in Southeast, five to eight of which are active at any given time, TLC offers nightly computer classes, which have been overflowing as of late, Pardes said.

"To come to an adult education center, after being at a school, whether it's one year or 20 years, and to open up the door, go back in and say 'I am getting my GED' is extrordinary," she said. "It's extrordinary people who come through our doors."

Wanda Whitcomb, chief GED examiner for Southeast, has been with TLC for four years. She agreed that although pursuing education is difficult for some, it can be an invaluable experience.

"I like seeing people make a positive change in their lives," she said. "I like seeing that struggle when they don't think they can do it, but they study, go back there and experience it, and they come out with an attitude of feeling so much more positive about their lives."

In addition to its 20 or so staff members, TLC uses about 15 to 20 volunteer tutors locally, but the number varies depending on the time of year. It is amazing when volunteers offer time to help someone else better themselves, Whitcomb said.

"The student and tutor both feel that energy," Whitcomb added. "Once they become involved with the students, it's such a strong energy, and it's such a community asset. These people have full-time jobs, and they volunteer to administer these tests, because they know their community needs it."

Nonna Shtipelman, volunteer coordinator and English as a Second Language instructor, has only worked at TLC since the end of April, but she agrees with many staff members that volunteers are a necessity for their organization to help their students succeed.

"We always have students looking for someone who might be able to share their love of math, reading or writing," Shtipelman said. "For our ESL students, it's often somebody who can just be a friend and provide conversational help."

Tutoring is often informal and may include going for a walk and practicing conversation or meeting for an hour at the library or TLC. Some volunteers help tutor or make snacks for the after-school programs at the three alternative locations: Cedar Park, Gruening Park and Geneva Woods. As volunteer coordinator, Shtipelman helps figure out what each volunteer wants and matches her or him to an appropriate student.

"For us as an organization, volunteers are really helpful to staff, and they're invaluable to students," Shtipelman said. "We can't meet everybody's needs, and it's wonderful to have people from the community who are willing to share their talents, their energy and their experience."

For Shtipelman and her colleagues, one of the neatest experiences at TLC is making connections within the community.

"(Volunteering) builds community, which is wonderful, and in adult education, that's really important," she said. "It's important to feel like you're part of a community, for both students and volunteers. And it's a great way to make new friends, share cultures, learn something new, even debunk stereotypes and experience Juneau as a diverse, wonderful place with all sorts of people, all of whom contribute, share and make this place amazing."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kim.andree@juneauempire.com.

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