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Grace Outreach Changes Lives
By Adrian Cabreja

“It’s never too late to get an education,” says Rebecca Sánchez, whose broad smile was infectious. She would know — she’s 56 years old, and she is graduating. Sánchez, and her beaming husband, were one of the 140 women and their families in attendance in a packed auditorium at Immaculate Conception School on East 151st Street in the Bronx recently for their commencement exercises. It was a distinctive — and distinct — graduating class. Composed entirely of women of varying ages and backgrounds, the achievements on display went far beyond the degrees being granted.

Grace Outreach, a non-profit organization that was founded in 2004 by Margaret Grace, began as a GED (General Equivalency Degree) education center servicing low-income women of the South Bronx.

Since its founding, over 600 women have received their degrees. The women at Grace Outreach have many different reasons for not having finished high school. Some of the students were victims of domestic violence. Others are single mothers who found it difficult to find the time to pursue an education while also tending to their children. Some were simply students whose needs were overlooked by the existing educational models, and who were not engaged or motivated to stay in school. Traditionally, the odds are stacked against them. The neighboring Mott Haven neighborhood, one of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation, has had a historically low high school graduation rate.

The women of Grace have faced down great obstacles in getting an education, the kinds of challenges that can make finishing school impossible. Lois Grogan, a 34-year-old mother, grew up in East River Houses in East Harlem and lives in the Bronx River Houses now on 174th Street. Grogan says her life has been difficult: poverty, painful childhood, drugs, imprisonment. “It was rough,” she says of her upbringing, though she is quick to accept responsibility for her decisions. “I chose to follow the wrong crowd,” she says. “I’ve experienced prison. I’ve never been on hard drugs, but I did sell for a living.” Drug charges turned into four separate jail sentences for Grogan, spanning her teenage years. Her last sentence, which lasted two years, ended in 1998 when she was 21. Soon after coming home on parole, she learned she was pregnant with her daughter. “I realized it was finally time to get my life together,” she says.

Introduced by a friend to the programs at Grace Outreach, Grogan signed up when registration time came. She passed the GED exam after two months with the instructors at Grace Outreach, scoring 250 points above the passing grade. She credits her supporters, including her family, and the teachers and staff at Grace Outreach for helping her focus. “I’d see people and tell them, I’m back in school and they’d say, ‘you go!’ ” she says.

While Grace Outreach began primarily in 2004 as a GED education center, it has since expanded considerably. It has grown into a far more diversified agency that also offers college preparation programs, specialized math boot camp classes, and a full array of career services and events. The goal is to provide comprehensive support to the students and graduates as they begin college, vocational training and new careers.

The acquisition of the GED, argues Andrew Rubinson, the executive director at Grace Outreach, is transformative — and far-reaching. “We are here to celebrate a milestone,” explains Rubinson, “and an improvement that will contribute to ... the overall fabric of the Bronx.” The opportunity for these women to become more economically secure by pursuing their education and acquiring real job training creates a new model of success, and breaks through cycles of despair, he says.

Grace Outreach employs 13 experienced personnel members, including tutors and teachers. The organization charges no tuition, and works closely with its students to prepare and give them a strong foundation in mathematics, reading and writing. It also looks to recognize specific areas of academic weakness, which, for some individuals, might have led to previous failed attempts at obtaining GED’s at other institutions.

Many graduates have already begun to take definite steps for new futures. Twenty of the graduates have applied and were accepted to colleges. Freshly armed with a GED, many of the students are seeking out new jobs right away, and looking to higher education in a year or two.

Deidre Green, another Grace Outreach graduate, plans to go to Hostos Community College and pursue an MBA. Her mother at her side, she added that she currently has many business ideas, and that she wants to further understand business in order to be effective in the world of commerce.

Rubinson, who has also done community-based work in northern Manhattan, points to the women’s commitment. “It’s the enthusiasm these women show,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

Rubinson also believes that the program would have never been the success that it is today if it were not for the intelligent and dedicated faculty that serves the women in the programs. He is quick to urge other women in situations where they might feel hopeless to consider the success stories of the Grace Outreach women. “We can help [women] realize and figure out their goals,” he says. #

Reprinted with permission of The Bronx Free Press.



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