GED provides new opportunity for undocumented Athenians

Students cradling notebooks file into their GED class, greeting one another in Spanish and filling in the side-arm desks from the back.

“I need it for deferred action,” said one student, a 26-year-old Mexican citizen but U.S. resident for the past twelve years. “I would feel free. With it, you don’t have to be scared anymore.”

Half a million people will get their GED in the United States this year, but education is not necessarily the sole focus of these certificates. For students like the 26-year-old woman, the road to a GED can also serve as a pathway around deportation– at least for now.

On June 15th 2012, President Obama signed an executive order allowing undocumented “childhood arrivals” to apply for “deferred action,” granting immunity from deportation for a two-year period as well as employment authorization. The Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of the Latino community in Athens, Ga., has run their GED prep program for over a year, but deferred action revitalized it. Executive director Jeff Zimmerman said registration rose after the announcement, and the center expanded its program in August.

“The deferred action is really big. Being able to legally participate in our economy is a really big deal,” Zimmerman said. “Our GED program, given that possibility, would have a really impact because it opens so many doors for people– brand new jobs they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, being able to be here without fear of being deported for two years.”

To be eligible for deferred action consideration by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, residents must have arrived in the United States prior to their sixteenth birthday, have continuously resided in the United States for the last five years, have a clean criminal record and either be an honorably discharged veteran, currently in school, have graduated from a high school or awarded a GED. This last provision is where ALCES steps in.

“Our [GED prep] course is pretty intensive, they try to get them through as quickly as possible while still capturing all the necessary content,” Zimmerman said. “We have some pretty focused students.”

The GED is a high school equivalency certificate, open to anyone at least sixteen years of age and not enrolled in a regular high school. The GED is contingent on the cumulative scores of five individual tests. Incentive exists to pass these tests the first time due to the burdens of cost (in the state of Georgia, fees total to $95) and time (low scores can result in a three or six month wait period before individuals can retake the GED tests). Reports from national and local news sources show rising demand for preparation courses from undocumented would-be test-takers, but students struggle to afford private options, barred from free, state-provided classes due to their legal status.

Not every student participating in the GED courses at ALCES does so with aims of deferred action.

“Some want to do it for education purposes or job opportunities,” Zimmerman said.

But he added that at least half, maybe more, are taking these classes in hopes of fulfilling the educational requirement of the policy.

But those who do, according to Jennifer Blalock, an ALCES volunteer who works the front desk, come from all corners of Georgia and even as far as South Carolina to sit in the classrooms at ALCES. She attributes this not only to the classes themselves, but to the role ALCES plays in the Latino community as well.

“We’re established from within the Latino community,” she said, pointing out the multitude of community services ALCES offers.

According to former ALCES executive director Jamie Umaña, 380 students are enrolled in GED classes at the center, a number only limited by classroom space. Blalock says demand is so high that ALCES keeps a waiting list. For the undocumented, the possibility of deferred action makes the GED process all worthwhile.

“I cannot imagine living as an undocumented immigrant. The fear that comes with that of using basic resources that you and I would take for granted every day is crazy,” Zimmerman said. “Being scared of going to the doctor…every traffic stop becomes a terrifying experience– if you’re undocumented you’re un-licenseable.”

Students at the classes agreed. The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant said her life would “change in many ways” if she received deferred action. For her, the most important thing to come with deferred action would be a license, which would enable mobility without fear and the opportunity for a better job.

Another undocumented woman, also from Mexico, agreed. “It’s hard to get a job when you can’t drive or apply with your real name,” she said. The 19-year-old has lived in the U.S. since she was four. Beyond the end, she enjoys the means, saying the classes are good and “getting to learn more about the subjects” is interesting.

Although none of the students knew people awarded deferred action, all still have hope. Hope for a future, according to students, they didn’t have prior to the executive order.

“I dropped out of high school because what’s the point when you can’t go to college or get a job,” said the 19-year-old, now attending GED prep courses but still far from prepared to take the actual test. In the meantime, Zimmerman said the courses build a resource without legal bounds: confidence.

“When people succeed, they get empowered and that can’t really be understated.”

ALCES offers GED classes specializing in language arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and math, either in two-hour increments Monday through Thursday or in a six hour Saturday class. Course duration ranges from three to six months, at $50 a month. The center registers new students every week. ALCES is also always in great need of volunteers to help operate all its many community programs.

Athens food bank operating above board

by Chari Sutherland

There was a bevy of activity at the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia last Wednesday- a busy day at the food bank since mid-week is usually the time food pantries restock their shelves, said Tonya Pass, Programs Coordinator.

The parking lot was full of vans and trucks, all from agencies that provide services in the community, such as emergency shelters or food pantries.  Large, hand trucks piled high with boxes of food were being loaded into vans.  Inside the warehouse, other “shoppers” (representatives from the agencies) were picking out food from bins and lower levels of the warehouse shelves. 

The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia is non-profit and serves a 14-county area.  It is located in Athens on Newton Bridge Road.  It is one of nine food banks in Georgia according to the Department of Human Resources website.  In total, the food bank supplies food to 240 partner agencies, all of which are nonprofit.  Sixty-five of those agencies are within the Athens-Clarke County area, including the Salvation Army and the Athens Homeless Shelter.  Documents and interviews indicated the food bank is operating well in the area they serve, with some minor problems.

Some findings were:

  • About 12% of  partner agencies are not completing required reports to the food bank in timely fashion
  • The food bank’s 2008 tax report was not accessible to the public
  • Oversight agencies and the food bank itself weren’t forthcoming with reports, sighting confidentiality or being unaware of compliance reports requested

Depending on the product, the food bank reports the use of the product and how many families served.  The food bank sends required monthly reports to the Department of Human Resources of the State of Georgia, the USDA and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).  By doing so, they are able to get more food items. 

Regarding the required monthly reports partner agencies have to give the food bank, George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator, said via email that reports are required by these government agencies to show who receives the food (income levels, age of recipients, employed/unemployed, etc).  Also, a temperature log is required to show prevention in loss of food and food safety.  Agencies must also keep a monthly meal calendar to help keep track of how many meals they served and which meals contained USDA products. 

McGrady said about 88% of the partner agencies are reporting on time and about another 5% are doing things properly and according to regulations.  There are a few agencies that are not complying by sending in their reports.  “We are trying to weed (them) out,” McGrady said. “We’re trying to find out if they want to continue to remain active and if so to make sure they get everything in order and keep it that way.”

Pass said the food bank reports to Feeding America, a national agency which oversees food banks, shelters and pantries that disburse food.  Calls to that agency for more information were unsuccessful.  The Feeding America communications representative, Keisha Miller, responded to queries via email that Feeding America could not comment on the operations of Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.   She wrote, “Feeding America’s information in regard to food bank ratings is confidential.”

Feeding America’ website did provide some information on numbers served, counties served and the like.  This information, however, was similar to all the information in the food bank’s 2009 annual report.  The pounds of food and the numbers of persons served are the same as listed in their tax report. 

The 2007 income tax statement was the most recent posted to the food bank’s website.  It lists their direct public support as over $7 million, government contributions (which includes grants) at over $34 thousand and total revenue at a little over $8 million.

The food bank has a regular staff of 18.   The number of Volunteers vary at the food bank.  Cynthia Griffith, Checkout Manager, said, “We could have at least 20 to 30 in a day.” 

Griffith, who has worked at the food bank for six years, said the food bank is able to help feed people who are in need at a better price.  They are able to shop for less money, she said.  As example, she pulled out a purchase order completed that morning.  The agency (unnamed for confidentiality) bought 97 pounds of food at a retail price of $145, but  only paid $14.22.  That was a savings of $131.28. 

In the smaller warehouse, connected to the main building which houses the administration offices, as well, shoppers come in to “shop”.  The food donated is sorted in the salvage room by category and expiration dates.  Then it is moved to the small warehouse in bins and boxes.  Representatives from agencies such as homeless shelters or food pantries come in any day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.   If they have a large order or don’t have time to pick out the food, agencies can order food online.  Online orders are processed in the large warehouse.  Orders must be picked up within 24 hours of the order being placed. 

The food bank also has special food programs offered to the community.  Food 2 Kids benefits school children.  “Counselors work with us, giving us the names of kids in need,” Griffith said.  “Every Thursday, volunteers come pack bags of food—enough for three meals.  The bags are given to the kids on Friday at school.”  In 2009, this program distributed 44,098 pounds of food.

The Brown Bag Program is for senior citizens.  Seniors can come in and sign up for this program.  It allows them one large, brown paper bag of food per week.  Senior participants can come pick the food up, or have it delivered to them by volunteers.  This program reportedly distributed 49,663 pounds of food. 

The food bank’s 2009 annual report states that 2,267,709 pounds of food was distributed (including total meals of 1,757,914) in Clarke County at a value of over three million dollars.  Their community outreach increased by 1.1 million pounds of food over the last year. 

Lisa Gillespie, of New Beginnings Ministry, praised the food bank.  “I don’t know how we would do it without them.”  New Beginnings feeds and shelters 60 women in Martin, Georgia.  “They have our order ready on time and it’s accurate with very little spoilage.”  Gillespie said the only problem she’s seen is the food bank’s ability to provide food in the winter.  “They hardly have anything and this seems to be consistent.”

Pastor Earl Delmarter of Healing Place in Athens, a men’s shelter, also feels the food bank does a good job.  “They authentically want to see hunger removed from our community,” he said.  He said the food bank’s training on how to distribute food is helpful.  The food bank helps Healing Place feed dozens of men throughout the year, Delmarter said. 


Barbara Andersen: A bigger vision for Athens’ homeless

by Chari Sutherland

A line forms in front of the building at 415 N. Lumpkin at 6 p.m.   There are 11 men and one woman.  Cold air whips into the tiny entry as they file in, stopping to sign in on a clipboard placed next to a stack of Styrofoam cups and a pot of fresh coffee.  Some of them rub their hands together.  Others allow their shoulders to relax from the hunched-up position they had assumed all day against the cold.

A few go into another small room used for storage and get their assigned tubs containing a mat, two blankets and a pillow.  In the largest of the three rooms, they claim a spot on gray carpeting that has seen better days.  Others immediately get in line in front of one of the two empty tables.  Soon, four young college-aged kids come in carrying cafeteria-style, silver containers.  They set up at the table where the line had formed.

“Smell’s like spaghetti,” one tall, dark man said to no one in particular.

Actually, it was a rare treat: Breakfast for Dinner, including pancakes, sausage, and eggs.

Thus begins a typical night at the Bigger Vision Community Winter Shelter, one of eight shelters in the Athens area.  Barbara Andersen, 78, has coordinated the shelter with her husband, Richard, since 2001. 

Bigger Vision is an emergency homeless shelter open seasonally from October 15 to April 15.  The shelter takes the first 16 people who call at five each evening.  A hot meal is served.  Everyone—including volunteers— is given a mat, two blankets, and pillow.  They all sleep on the floor in one room.  

Bigger Vision started as a ministry of St. James United Methodist Church in 1998 as an overflow shelter, open from November to February.  Andersen was a member of St. James and became a shelter volunteer in 1999.  In 2001, the coordinator at that time left Athens. 

“We ended up taking it over and it has grown since then,” Andersen said. 

A non-profit organization since 2007, Bigger Vision is operated on a volunteer basis.  During last year’s season, 2008 to 2009, there were 350 volunteers.  They recently hired one of the regular volunteers for a part-time, overnight position.  Other than that one employee, the organization is completely run by volunteers and with donations.  Their financial support for the year 2008 was $17,058, much of that grants and donations. 

She pointed to a large yellow refrigerator.  “Someone gave us this.  People in the community donate money and time, she said.  “The shelter has been given a freezer, but we have no place to keep it here.  That’s in our garage right now.  But if we get a more permanent place, it’ll go wherever the shelter is.”   As it is, the space the shelter uses is very limited.  The guests aren’t allowed to bring very much with them on their overnight stays. 

The shelter was housed at St. James until 2004.  Since that time, it has moved nearly every season wherever they could commandeer space.  This is their second year at the Lumpkin Street location.

Andersen’s inspiration to help others began when she was a child, during the Great Depression.  She and her family lived across the street from a church.  Passersby mistook their home for the parsonage.  “So they would stop and knock to see if there was any food available,” she said.  “Fortunately, my father being a school teacher—he may not have made much, but we had some money and my mother would always share whatever we had… an extra potato or whatever.” 

Since her childhood, Andersen went on to work as a nurse with the poor in the ghettos of Philadelphia, with migrant workers in the migrant fields of New Jersey, with prisoners in a penitentiary in Illinois, and established a program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for nursing students to gain practical experience by helping the homeless in shelters. 

Andersen said there are various reasons why people are homeless and they all need a place to get help.  Some of them do hold jobs but don’t make enough to meet their needs.  Some never went to high school, while others have college degrees.  Some of them support families, but can’t fully support themselves.  Some have mental health problems and “are really are in no position to be out in the streets,” she said. 

As coordinator, Andersen described her position at Bigger Vision as “jack of all trades, master of the none”.   In a three-ringed notebook, she keeps all sorts of data, such as the number of people who have donated time, food, or money and how many homeless different “guests” have been served each month.

“I keep track of everybody that’s been here and have since 2004,” she said.  “I can tell you how many have been homeless for a while, or how many are just new to us this year.”  In fact, from October to January Bigger Vision served 1,963 overnight guests.  She predicts the shelter’s 2009-2010 season will surpass the 2007-2008 season which served 2,473 total guests. 

The shelter also has to keep records for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia on how many people have been served.  George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator at the food bank, said Bigger Vision surpasses standards. 

Bobby S., who has been utilizing the shelter prior to Andersen’s involvement in 1998, said, “She’s good at keeping things together.”

The shelter used to serve food to anyone, whether they were staying overnight or not, but in December they decided they had to limit meals to overnight guests only.  The demand was too high. 

“A couple of times were knives drawn,” Andersen said.

Andersen is a small, petite woman of only five feet.  When asked if she’s ever felt afraid for her safety, she said no.  “I usually handle the big burly guys and everybody else just stands around and watches, including my husband.”  She said she’s less likely to get hurt because she’s female. 

“I do it just the same way you work with anyone else,” she said, beginning to speak in a lowered, calm, grandmotherly voice.  “You treat them with respect, with kindness, you’re firm.”

She said she always makes sure she’s below them, so they’re looking down on her and that her hands are always visible.  She speaks to them in a relaxed, quiet but firm manner. 

“Let’s put it this way, the fella that’s up to here—” she puts a hand two feet above her own head—“and out like this—” she puts her hands out in semi-circle in front of her to demonstrate girth.  “He’s been put out.  He doesn’t like it but he goes.  There are certain things that are not permitted.” 

“Sometimes people come and they been drinking and she straightens things out,” Bobby said.  “That’s why I call her Big Mama.  She likes it when I call her that.”

Keri Bunting, the shelter’s Volunteer Coordinator, has known Andersen for two years.  She said she’s often seen her deal with unruly guests.  “She has a way of doing it that’s commanding,” she said.  “… a lot of people wouldn’t know how to deal with it or they’d let it escalate.”  She said it’s Andersen’s ability to respect people for who they are that helps in these situations.

“She deals with people very diplomatically,” said John H., a regular guest of the shelter.  “She’s fair.  She treats us equally.” 

Gretchen Bowen, Andersen’s daughter has also observed her mother in action.  When asked if she ever felt concerned about her mother’s safety at the shelter, Bowen said a lot of the shelter guests are very protective of Andersen.  Some of them will intervene if they see a situation getting out of hand because most of them appreciate her and what she’s doing for them. 

John H. said, “When some people need to be ‘excused’, she’s got all our help.” 

Andersen said her goals for the shelter are to have it serve more than 16 people, to be open 365 days a year, and to pair homeless persons with special volunteers she would call “best friends”—someone who will spend time with them, listening and giving suggestions when they are ready. 

“Everyone didn’t become homeless for the same reasons,” she said. “They’re not cookie cutters so everyone can’t approach the problem the same way in the same time.” 

Bunting said Andersen “has a level of commitment past anything I’ve ever seen.  She made this shelter her entire life, her ministry.”  Andersen is her role model and inspiration.  “Seeing how she’s done it is my inspiration for how I can do it.”

Andersen isn’t sure if she’ll ever “retire” from her work at the shelter.  “I haven’t always been so fortunate,” she said, recalling how people helped her when she was struggling as single mom of four children.  “At those times people helped me.  I see this as my time to give back.”