Mother, daughter don mortarboards
After struggling for years with addiction, woman earns diploma days after her child’s Easton High graduation
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.
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.
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.