STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The secret to this GED program's success? The teacher.

flickr user Shiyang Huang

I met Jamie Rykse a couple months ago, to talk about juvenile justice reform in Michigan. When she was 17, she was convicted of home invasion and sent to serve four years in adult prison.

This week, I met up with her again to talk about what happened after she got out of prison, how she started helping out at Heartside Ministry, a place she’d gotten help when she was homeless.

And, how she launched a GED program there.

"When I first started doing the GED program, it was on a cart," she told me while we sat at a round table in a basement room with yellow painted walls. "A raggedy cart with one wheel that was broke and like a book, like a book and a half, and the little golf pencils and that’s what we were making do with."

Her GED program on a cart now has not one, but two rooms at Heartside Ministry.

In the second room, Rebekah Bunn sits at a computer, one of many computers donated to the program. She’s taking a practice test, so we leave her alone and go on a tour of the rest of the building, through a pottery studio, a woodworking shop and an art gallery.

Jamie Rykse was sent to an adult prison after a home invasion when she was 17. "I had been to hell and back," she says now. "I needed help."
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

The place is full on a snowy Monday. The people served here are all just called neighbors. Many of them, maybe all of them, don’t have a place of their own to call home.

"I tell everybody my story," Jamie Rykse says. "And just by doing that, I believe our program has been successful, because we humanize ourselves."

Rykse knows what that’s like. She started coming here when she didn’t have a place of her own either. That’s one of the reasons she says the GED program has been a success here.

"I tell everybody my story," she says. "I've been to prison. I've been homeless. I've been on drugs. I've been there, done it. I've been shot, I've been stabbed, everything you can imagine I've been there, I've been through it, I’ve done it. And just by doing that, I believe our program has been successful, because we humanize ourselves."

After the tour of the building, we go back down to the testing room where Rebekah Bunn has just finished.

"And we’re baaaack" Rykse announced.

Bunn goes over her score with Rykse, and I start asking questions.  Bunn tells me she has a son in foster care. She’s trying to get him back, and build a life where she can take care of him.

"Did you look into other GED programs at all?" I ask Bunn.

"Yeah, I tried," she says. "But every time I went to try to go do my GED, they said that I was too old for some of the programs. So I just had to keep looking until I found something that I could come to and I finally found somewhere."

Bunn says, eventually, she wants to go to college to become a geriatric nurse. She took care of her mother before her mother died last year. Now she wants to help more people.

"I want to do something good with my life to make my mom proud," she says. "Even though I had a rough life and didn’t have a very good relationship with her, I still loved her and I want to make her proud."

Rykse relates to this part of Bunn’s story. She lost her mother too. She had a rough relationship too.

Getting through those experiences is why she pushes people now.  

"To have somebody there to show you that it’s okay," she says, "and that you can do anything, you can achieve anything you put your mind to and not only telling you that but actually walking with you, it makes each individual person so successful."

And this program has been successful.

Heartside Ministry says 90% of people who enter this GED program graduate with their diploma. The program has grown from just 17 graduates in 2014 to 50 graduates so far this year. And it was awarded a $90,000 grant this summer to keep growing. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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