By Jennifer L. Johnson
Erin Barger often shares job openings with the visitors of Our Daily Bread soup kitchen at the Oconee Street United Methodist Church.
But for many, jobs that could help them get back on their feet are out of reach.
"The problem was that for many of the advertised jobs, my clients were often under-qualified for them because they didn't have high school diplomas or GEDs," Barger said. "We're working to help them fix that."
Athens Urban Ministries, which runs the soup kitchen, is offering free GED classes twice a week in the same place that 150-200 people a week are fed.
Many of them never finished high school, and the two-hour classes Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons are easy for them to get to.
Though there are other GED-prep programs in the area, most are affiliated with a school program, offered to families with children in the public school system or too hard for the homeless or working poor to get to by bus, Barger said.
Barger, who became director of Athens Urban Ministries in June, saw almost immediately how much the people who rely on Our Daily Bread could use a GED program. She approached the Economic Justice Coalition, a group that promotes fair employment practices, which helped her connect with Caryl Sundland at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens.
"The classes are doing something important in the community," Sundland said. "They're changing people's lives, and we want to support that."
Sundland's church pays for an instructor and classroom supplies through a Unitarian church grant. So far, five members of the congregation have tutored.
Cathie Bigman, who taught GED sessions at Alps Road Elementary School until a grant ran out, was hired to teach the classes.
"I'm ecstatic to go into work every day," Bigman said. "My students are very dedicated, and I think it's a joy for them to learn - they're excited when they realize they know something that they didn't think they did before."
The students range from their mid-20s to their mid-50s. Some are only a few months away from taking the GED test; others are tackling subjects they might not have seen in 30 years, according to Bigman, who sets up study plans for each student to work at his own pace.
"We're not rushing people through," Barger said. "We're trying to meet people where they are and encourage that and help them accomplish their goals as soon as is reasonable for their life."
When one of the students gets ready to take the test, Urban Ministries will help him apply for an Athens-Clarke County Literacy Council scholarship that covers 75 percent of the fee and help with transportation to the testing site.
"We do everything we can to take the student from the starting line to the finish line of the GED testing process," Barger said.
Athens Urban Ministries is looking for volunteers and tutors for its GED program - especially in math - and previous experience isn't necessary. Call (706) 353-6647 for more information about volunteering your time, or visit athens.actionministries.net.
Athens Urban Ministries is hosting its 20th anniversary celebration and fundraiser at 6:30 p.m. March 25 at the First United Methodist Church of Athens; former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley will be the keynote speaker. Tickets cost $40, with proceeds going to support Urban Ministries programs like the GED classes.
This article was originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, February 07, 2010. It has been re-published with permission by the publisher.