STANISLAUS COUNTY -- The bouquets have wilted, balloons gone flat, posters torn down. Graduation night parties end, but what Susan Wood holds in her hand will last, and hopefully serve her well: a GED.
"I did it! Forty-five years old and I graduated. I can't believe it," said Wood, one of 134 students celebrated as ReadingWorks graduates in a ceremony earlier this month.
Among the 15 folks cheering Wood across the stage were her husband, Scott, "my biggest fan," she said, and two youngsters in hats that read "Go Grandma."
Wood said she dropped out as a junior and found those lost years were harder the second time through. "But I'm a determined gal," she said. She hopes that dedication sends a message to her daughters, who also dropped out, and her grandchildren. Next up: nursing classes.
"My lifetime goal is to become an RN," Wood said. She's heading back to work at an assisted living facility to pay her way.
Mireya Zeiger, 45, sees a future in counseling, helping others through the problems she navigated alone as a teenager. "When I dropped out, it was because of home troubles. I was thinking just about going to work, and how I was going to survive," Zeiger said.
As a single mom, she raised three graduates and has a 13-year-old in high school. It was her son's graduation from Navy boot camp last year that spurred her to go back and try again.
Kimberly Hooper's inspiration was a good job she did not get because she had no diploma. She was heading back to the same employer, hopes high, to put in her application after graduating.
Hooper said that without that paper, the only jobs she could get were below minimum wage. People who complained found themselves with cut hours or no job at all, she said. She never complained.
"I worked two jobs, and it wasn't enough to put food on the table," Hooper said.
Karen Williams, head of Stanislaus Literacy Center and the ReadingWorks program, said she hears such stories daily.
"When you know the stories behind these graduates and all the obstacles they had to overcome to reach this point, it is hard not to get emotional. Watching them walk in to 'Pomp and Circumstance' just filled my heart," Williams said.
The nonprofit Stanislaus Literacy Center helps adults learn to read, pass their General Education Development diploma and learn English. The ReadingWorks program is provided by the center and the Stanislaus County Library. The awards night and graduation, held at CrossPoint Community Church, drew a crowd of 500 to applaud those who climbed mountains to take those proud steps.
Still working toward the walk is Ismael Diaz, who graduated from high school in Mexico. But employers don't count that, Diaz said, so he's been working on getting his GED and has one test to go. He landed a truck driving job and will have to wait to earn some time off to clear that last hurdle, he said.
Diaz, a legal resident, worked in construction. When the economy tanked, he lost his job, then his house. "It's been hard. But I can try to stand up again," he said.
Katelyn Holson, 20, passed the GED exam in March, but almost missed the ceremonial walk she'd waited for after being injured in a car wreck. When she completes her recovery, she'll be back as ReadingWorks receptionist, encouraging others starting their academic do-overs.
"They get so discouraged coming in, and then they get excited because they start progressing. It's great seeing them," Holson said.
Holson said she dropped out three months into her freshman year. Now she's working on early college courses and plans to transfer to an online university. Her one regret is that her grandmother didn't live to see her big day.
"At just a really hard time, she was a big part of my life. She was my baby-
sitter. She did everything," Holson said. "She would have loved to see me graduate."
ReadingWorks Learning Center is seeking tutors for adult learners. For information, call (209) 558-4505.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.