By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 15, 2004
Three days before her high school graduation Jessica Walden learned that she had failed the graduation test for the third time and wouldn’t be getting her diploma.
“I had retaken the test two times. I didn’t give up. I just didn’t want to take the test again,” said Walden.
Now 20 years old, and after having worked as a stock girl and cashier at Save Rite, as a pool cleaner, and as an usher and ticket-taker at the Georgia Dome, Walden, a single mother with young children, has decided it is time to go back to class and get her GED. So last August, referred by a friend, she enrolled in the GED preparation class at the Atlanta Covenant House Outreach Center on Broad Street.
“It’s three days a week. We come on time and complete the work and homework. My experience has been good,” Walden said.
Although still struggling academically, “I have had encouragement from some of the teachers and the rest of the staff to tell me to continue on,” she said. “It helps my self-confidence because they encourage me . . . Without a GED I won’t be able to go to college to get a job I want.”
She is hoping to get the GED by December and meanwhile is also taking Covenant House’s life readiness class focusing on job and life skills. She’s gotten a “very nice” job though their job fair, as a server for a food services company. She’s still in the job readiness program where “they have speakers talking on self-confidence and stuff like that,” she continued. “It’s setting me toward my goals . . . It helps you train for a job with resources, helps you find a job, (teaches you) how to talk in an interview, what to wear.”
She’s unsure of her long-term employment goal but is interested in working with others, being a “people-person.”
Since her involvement with Covenant House, she has also gotten her learner’s permit. She added that CH holds holiday activities she can bring her children to and gives away gifts and dinners at Christmas and food at Thanksgiving, along with providing toiletries, clothes and other items. “It’s there as needed.”
Executive director Andre Eaton explained that Covenant House Georgia offers job placement assistance through companies that have agreed to give their referrals a chance. It is a stepping-stone for these 16- to 21-year-olds if they take this opportunity seriously, he said.
“The kid has to learn not to burn bridges. They may not want to keep an $8-an-hour job forever, but you leave knowing they write you a good recommendation. I mean, we all know those things, but those kids don’t necessarily know that,” he said.
Also Covenant House staff continues to help youth make progress, he said. “We won’t leave you just because you got a minimum wage job; we’ll work with you in getting a job upgrade as well.”
Their GED preparation class, filled to capacity at about 27, is particularly needed, he said, noting an Atlanta Journal Constitution report that 50 percent of youth in Atlanta drop out of high school.
Covenant House also has a computer room with telephones, newspapers and fax machines where youth can work on their resumes and do job research on the Internet.
Misha Nonen, program coordinator at the outreach center, said the life readiness program is also “very successful.” Topics include money management, budgeting, conflict resolution, resume writing and goal setting.
“We’re trying to prepare them for life, not just their job,” said Nonen. “Once clients go through the life readiness program, they meet an employment specialist. They meet with employers who will work with youth and give them a chance.”
Nonen said CH is the city’s only youth social services agency with an open intake policy, not requiring any referrals. Each client is immediately assigned a caseworker, who does a needs assessment.
“We have an open intake. All you have to have is a picture ID to participate in the program,” she said.
They also focus on “risk factor management” which involves looking at everything that can possibly be a positive influence on that young person in guiding him, including getting people more involved such as his parents or church community.
“It’s really about building positive relationships with the kids,” said Eaton.
As she takes a step forward to improve herself, Walden is hopeful. “I’m looking toward the future and not the past. I’m here for more, to get a better job and a better future, and to get my GED.”