Mother, daugh­ter don mor­tar­boards

Af­ter strug­gling for years with ad­dic­tion, woman earns diploma days af­ter her child’s Eas­ton High grad­u­a­tion

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRISTINA TATU

Three years ago Ash­ley Zong was visit­ing the food bank at St. John’s Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church in Eas­ton.

At the time, Zong, now 36, was bat­tling a years­long drug ad­dic­tion and strug­gling to stay afloat fi­nan­cially af­ter drop­ping out of high school when she was 17 and preg­nant with her daugh­ter, Anasta­cia Scha­ef­fer.

On Mon­day, the Eas­ton res­i­dent re­turned to St. John’s, this time for a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony where she was awarded her high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cate, paving the way to at­tend Northamp­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Au­gust.

“This jour­ney was about overcoming the fear and all the things that were hold­ing me back for so long,” said Zong, whose ex­pe­ri­ence was sweet­ened by the fact that she passed her ex­ams just days af­ter Anasta­cia, 18, grad­u­ated from Eas­ton Area High School this month.

Zong was among nearly 70 stu­dents earn­ing their high school equiv­a­lency and other cer­tifi­cates on Mon­day night through ProJeCt of Eas­ton, a non­profit that pro­vides ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices to help their clients break the cycle of poverty.

This year’s grad­u­ates in­clude 36 stu­dents who earned high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cates; 20 stu­dents grad­u­at­ing with English as a sec­ond lan­guage cer­tifi­cates; eight stu­dents who re­ceived ESL cer­tifi­cates in ad­di­tion to train­ing that will al­low them to move on to manufactur­ing jobs, and three stu­dents who earned U.S. ci­ti­zen­ship.

“There were so many days I was so hyped up, and so many days where I was so scared,” said Zong, who will start a busi­ness man­age­ment pro­gram at NCC.

She hopes to one day open her own restau­rant.

“She’s ac­com­plished a lot,” said Scha­ef­fer, who pro­vided emo­tional sup­port for Zong

through­out the process.

“There would be days she’d be think­ing of giv­ing up and I’d say, ‘Mom, that diploma is so worth it. When you’re done you’ll re­al­ize why I spent those 12 years in school,’” said Scha­ef­fer who is plan­ning to pur­sue cos­me­tol­ogy.

Zong, who grew up in the Le­high Val­ley, said a child­hood of abuse pushed her to start us­ing al­co­hol when she was just 11 years old be­fore mov­ing on to other drugs, start­ing an ad­dic­tion that spanned two decades.

Be­tween 12 and 16, Zong said said she was moved to 16 dif­fer­ent foster homes, which meant her ed­u­ca­tion was “all over the place” and she wasn’t re­ceiv­ing the en­cour­age­ment she needed to keep up with her stud­ies.

When Zong walked into St. John’s three years ago, some­one there told her about ProJeCt and how the free ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram could change her life. An em­ployee from the non­profit called and left a voice mes­sage en­cour­ag­ing Zong to reach out. But she wasn’t ready.

“I did not pur­sue it at the time, but I saved that voice mail for three years know­ing that one day I was go­ing to be able to do this,” Zong said.

It was a lit­tle more than two years ago that Zong hit her rock bot­tom and knew she needed to change.

She had been ar­rested for DUI and lost friends and fam­ily be­cause of her ad­dic­tion.

“I de­cided to get clean. When I did that, I de­cided to change all the ar­eas of my life that I never gave my full po­ten­tial to, and my ed­u­ca­tion was one of them,” said Zong, who had suc­cess with ther­apy and an in­ten­sive 12-step pro­gram.

She’s open about her strug­gles, hop­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence could one day en­cour­age some­one else.

“As I watched her grow, I watched her gain con­fi­dence and be­lieve in her­self.

She never stopped com­ing, even when she didn’t want to,” said Erin Ro­man, ProJeCt’s teach­ing and learn­ing co­or­di­na­tor.

Adult learn­ers who en­ter ProJeCt’s ed­u­ca­tion classes have been be­tween the ages of 17 to 75 and have a va­ri­ety of back­grounds.

Some of them dropped out of school be­cause they weren’t served well by the sys­tem, or they left to take care of fam­ily obli­ga­tions, said ProJeCt’s Pro­gram Di­rec­tor An­toinette Cava­liere.

ProJeCt’s ed­u­ca­tion classes are free to those earn­ing within 235% of the fed­eral poverty guide­lines, Cava­liere said.

Those guide­lines start at $12,490 per year for a sin­gle per­son, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. So some­one could make up to $29,352 per year to qual­ify.

No mat­ter the level, ad­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion is al­ways a spring­board to some­thing bet­ter, Cava­liere said.

“A high school equiv­a­lency diploma gets you into post­sec­ondary train­ing. You can get a pro­mo­tion at work, be­come self-sus­tain­ing. This opens so many doors for them,” Cava­liere said.

Those who grad­u­ate with ESL cer­tifi­cates are prepped to go on and earn their high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cate. This year, more than half of ProJeCt’s ESL stu­dents went on to earn their high school equiv­a­lency, Cava­liere said.

It typ­i­cally takes a year to com­plete the ESL pro­gram.

The time it takes to com­plete the high school equiv­a­lency pro­gram depends on where the stu­dent was aca­dem­i­cally be­fore they left school, Cava­liere said.

Those with more school­ing can earn their cer­tifi­cate in three to five months, while some stu­dents take up to two years. Zong started the pro­gram on Jan. 2.

ProJeCt of Eas­ton has been around for 50 years, but did not be­gin of­fer­ing ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams un­til about 30 years ago. In 2008, they pur­chased the Fowler Lit­er­acy Cen­ter at 200 Ferry St., where the non­profit’s adult ed­u­ca­tion classes are of­fered, Cava­liere said.

The num­ber of stu­dents con­tin­ues to in­crease. This year’s grad­u­at­ing class had 20 more stu­dents than last year.

Cava­liere at­tributes the growth to the in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion in Northamp­ton County and Eas­ton.

Peo­ple are seeking bet­ter job op­por­tu­ni­ties for which they need more train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, she said.

“Ed­u­ca­tion changes their lives. It changes how they feel about themselves, and you can’t put a num­ber on that,” Cava­liere said.

For in­for­ma­tion on ProJeCt of Eas­ton visit: pro­jecteas­ton.org.

RICK KINTZEL/THE MORN­ING CALL

Anasta­cia Scha­ef­fer, 18, ad­justs the cap for her mother, Ash­ley Zong, 36, Mon­day at ProJeCt’s Fowler Lit­er­acy Cen­ter in Eas­ton. Zong was at St. John’s Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church, in Eas­ton for a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony where she was awarded her high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cate.

PHO­TOS BY RICK KINTZEL/THE MORN­ING CALL

Anasta­cia Scha­ef­fer, 18, left, who just grad­u­ated from Eas­ton High, places a cap on the head of her mother, Ash­ley Zong on Mon­day at ProJeCt’s Fowler Lit­er­acy Cen­ter in Eas­ton.

Ash­ley Zong, 36, of Eas­ton, claps as her fel­low stu­dents give speeches Mon­day at St. John’s Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church in Eas­ton for a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony for ProJeCt. Zong re­ceived her high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cate, paving the way to at­tend Northamp­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Au­gust.

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