The 2012 graduates of Thorn Hill Education Center gathered Friday night in caps and gowns to receive their GEDs in front of family and friends.
Three spoke to the crowd to share their stories of setbacks, from family troubles to high school burnout to health problems.
Kim Avery, 38, dropped out of high school at 16 because she wasn’t getting along with her stepfather. She moved from her native Syracuse, N.Y., to Kentucky in 1996, and struggled to find work that paid decent wages.
“I figured I wasn’t getting anywhere as far as jobs go, so I decided back in 2009 to go down here to Thorn Hill,” she said.
“It took me three years to get it, but I finally got it, and I want to make a point and prove to my kids that I can actually make something of my life.”
Avery spent three years working toward her GED at Thorn Hill before passing the last exam March 7, and it’s already paying off with a new full-time job at a recycling plant.
“Even my neighbors could hear when I got it, because I’d been working on it for so long,” she said. “(I have) the opportunity to be able to go to college now – more doors have opened up for me.”
Avery graduated just a week after her 18-year-old son, Chad, who earned his diploma from Frankfort High School last Friday.
“Both getting caps and gowns a week apart,” Kim said, with a laugh, sitting on their front porch a few weeks ago with Chad and her 11-year-old daughter, Kristina.
Mother and son hope to go to Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lawrenceburg together too. Chad wants to study architecture, and Kim is considering a degree in the nursing field.
Both agreed that education makes life easier down the road.
“If you have made the choice to drop out of school, I would recommend Thorn Hill because the staff down there are great,” Avery said.
“They are willing to go out of their way to help people that are in need, and they’ve done that for me.”
Destiny Rancher, 18, was Thorn Hill’s valedictorian. She dropped out of Franklin County High School in October – four days after her 18th birthday – overwhelmed by the pressure to perform.
“Because I was smart, everyone had such high expectations that I never had time to do what I love, which is writing. I always had to make the honor roll, do this and do that,” she said.
“No matter how smart you are, the more you keep trying and trying and trying to make the best grades, the more unhappy you get. You forget about everything else.”
In a scholarship essay she wrote, Rancher said her family was so disappointed in her decision to drop out of high school that they asked her to leave home.
“But how could I have told my family that I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in at college? How could I have told them that I dropped out because I was tired of being an outsider in high school?” she wrote.
Rancher got a small apartment and joined the Whatever is Needed program at Thorn Hill, which gives 16- to 18-year-olds extra support, like providing transportation and paying for testing fees. She also got help applying for college and financial aid.
She earned her GED in January and enrolled at BCTC in Lawrenceburg. She hopes to transfer to a four-year college with a creative writing program to pursue her passion of becoming a published author.
“I have a million stories in my head – I don’t understand how writers can have writer’s block,” she said. “There’s just so much in the world you can say.”
The plan is to turn her struggles into inspiration for others.
As a fifth-grader, Rancher said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She has lived in poverty and said she’s grappled with her identity as a homosexual African American.
Rancher said she considered becoming a psychologist to help kids going through the same kinds of things she did, but realized she could help them more freely through her writing. She is considering adding illustrations to dramatize her work.
“For me, it was easier to pick up a book and read about it instead of talking to someone about it,” she said.
“There’s no fear of embarrassment or anything like that, there are no opinions or anything like that. I think that is a better way for me to get my point across, to get my words read and to make my words have meaning.”
When she isn’t writing, Rancher says she’s reading black writers who inspire her, like Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.
Rancher says the greatest reward will be if someone tells her a book she wrote helped them.
“I think everyone should just take five minutes, sit down, and decide if they’re happy and if they’re living or just existing,” she said.
“If you don’t look forward to it every day, then to me, it’s not for you. When I wake up every morning, I wake up wanting to -write.”
J. Wade Kavanaugh III grew up in Garrard County, where he dropped out of high school to help his family after his father died.
He said earning his GED always stuck in the back of his mind, but it became a priority when he landed in the hospital with a life-threatening brain tumor in 2008. Doctors told him he’d survive, but would never walk or talk the same.
“I knew in my heart that wasn’t true,” he said. “I went through the rehab, the speech (therapy) and the radiation, and my main thought was getting my GED and my life right for me and my family.”
Now he hopes to attend BCTC in the fall.
Bob Waitkus, marketing director for eight McDonald’s restaurants in the Frankfort area, gave Friday’s graduation address. A total of 114 earned a GED.
Waitkus, who lives in Woodford County, earned his GED in 1973 after he tired of working manual labor hauling block for construction projects.
He told the graduates that at first he scoffed at the idea of studying for the GED, but eventually realized that he hated pushing a wheelbarrow more than he hated school. He got a job setting up for banquets and worked his way up to his current role.
“One day at a time, one task at a time, doors open,” he said. “You’ve opened the first door for yourselves today.”
2012 Graduates: Thorn Hill Education Center
Michael Allen Jr.
James D. Boyington
J. Wade Kavanaugh
James D. Meador
Bryant L. Monie
Michael D. Ormond
William H. Payne
Robert Reynolds III
Gregory Mason Tackett
Seth M. Weber
Micheal Clay White