In middle school, Krystal Stockham watched as her grades nose-dived and her confidence in school tanked. She flunked the seventh grade and never returned.
Corey Heikkila's life unraveled when he learned his 6-month-old son accidentally hung himself in his crib. He began abusing alcohol and drugs and lost his job and home.
After eight years and many failed attempts at earning her GED, Jenna Overson decided four months ago to try again. In the back of her mind she wondered if this time would be any different.
The three students are looking toward brighter futures after earning their GEDs along with the Londer Learning Center's Class of 2013.
More than 200 people packed the Multnomah Building board room on Thursday, June 13 to honor the center’s 80 graduates, who participate in the program for adults on probation, parole and re-entry into the community from prison and jail. Earning their GED gives ex-offenders an opportunity to catch up on education and is a significant step towards them becoming more productive members of society.
“Getting a GED is hugely important,” Chair Jeff Cogen told the graduates. “It’s hard enough to do when everything is easy. You’re here today because you didn’t give up.”
During the ceremony, graduates recounted stories of their hardships, desires to quit and the family and friends who supported them through the process.
After dropping out of middle school, Stockham found herself homeless and living under Portland’s bridges. At 17, she gave birth to a son, who is now 12. She also has a 9-year-old daughter. When she enrolled in Londer, her children encouraged her not to give up.
Graduation day was still bittersweet for Stockham whose mother-in-law died in a house fire last year. She wore a necklace with a small bottle of her mother-in-law’s ashes around her neck.
“I did this for her,” she said as she choked up.
Now that Heikkila has his GED, he wants to become a drug counselor. He credited the Londer Learning Center volunteers and staff for their encouragement.
"They made it a bigger deal than I thought it was," Heikkila said of the degree.
Overson, whose judge and probation officer attended the ceremony, said working toward her GED taught her to be more confident.
“I was in self-sabotage mode,” Overson said. “It was overcoming the fear of succeeding.”
The celebration also marked the first year a graduating class has donned traditional caps and gowns for the Londer Learning Center ceremony. Inmates involved in a college program at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem raised more than $1,000 in donations for caps and gowns for GED graduates and Londer Learning Center through a successful marketing campaign.
Ezekiel Stroschein, who was released this past April, was one of the inmates involved in the campaign. He recalled reading about Londer’s graduation in the newspaper and seeing a picture of graduates with no caps and gowns.
“I put in the back of my head to get caps and gowns,” Stroschein said. “I presented the idea to my group and they all seemed to love it. We basically came up with donations from those who were incarcerated. I was overwhelmed with how willing and able these guys were to give back.”
Londer Learning Center was first founded in 1993 by the late presiding Judge Donald H. Londer, and the late John Ryan, a former Portland attorney. The duo envisioned a literacy center that would act as an alternative sentencing for offenders.
Since the Londer Learning Center first opened, about 1,085 students have received their GEDs.
Watch a video of this year's Londer Learning Center graduation: