Aiken County residents earn GEDs with Catholic Center’s help

GLOVERVILLE — Peggy Estes and her father, Jimmy, spent a recent Wednesday morning solving math problems.

The two Edgefield residents huddled at a table with Christina Geter of Beech Island and figured out the correct answers. Daughters of Charity Sister Mary Sheehan checked on them several times to monitor their progress.

These adult students are among dozens of Aiken County residents who have returned to school to obtain their General Educational Development credential through a program at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Center in Gloverville. The Center is run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who have helped the area’s needy since 1977.

The program serves people who are seeking to improve their lives and career prospects by earning a GED. The classes cater to adults who left  high school before graduating.

Many of the students worked in the area’s textile mills. But in 2006, Avondale Mills in Graniteville shut down, putting many people in the area, also known as Horse Creek Valley, out of work. Some were laid off from other jobs because of the recession and others need better jobs but cannot qualify without a diploma.

Success stories are common here.

Sister Mary Sheehan said 45 people have received their GED in the past two years, and 10 former students are attending the University of South Carolina-Aiken or Aiken Technical College. Others are pursuing certificate programs at area technical schools.

Many of the former students are interested in trying to find jobs in careers that have some stability in the turbulent economy, including nursing, electronics and fields that might enable them to land jobs at the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear materials processing center.

Classes are offered in eight-week sessions at night during the school year in a donated and refurbished portable building behind the Catholic center. Students prepare for the GED exam’s five components: math, science, social studies, language arts-reading and language arts-writing.

Sister Mary Sheehan does the bulk of the teaching, assisted by area volunteers. On Wednesdays, Aiken resident Marion Naifeh leads sessions on essay writing. A recent class included tips on brainstorming for topics, organizing thoughts, and writing clear, coherent paragraphs that make a point.

“So many of the students have gone on to become well-employed,” said Sister Mary Jean Doyle, director of the outreach center. “The oldest of our students was 62 years old. We recently had a young woman who had come into the area who was a Hurricane Katrina survivor. They see the sign out front about the classes, or hear about them through word of mouth.”

The GED program gave Michael Gunnells, 50, a chance to start a new career.

Gunnells, who lives in the nearby town of Clearwater, worked for 30 years at the Graniteville mill before it closed.

“I had a pretty good job at that mill, but they shut it down after the train wreck,” he said. “I’d been out of school for 30 years and I suddenly had to retrain for another job.”

A train accident occurred near the Graniteville mill in 2005, which left nine people dead and directly contributed to Avondale’s closing. Gunnells did not know where to begin until a friend referred him to the Catholic center.

“It’s a real good program,” Gunnells said. “Sister Mary is a really good teacher who is also real strict, and that’s what you need to be to make people do right. They don’t put up with anything down there. You have to do your homework and apply yourself. She’s s a real good lady who makes you learn.”

He received his GED in December 2007 and started classes in industrial maintenance at Aiken Technical College in January 2008.

When he completes the two-year program, which is designed to help graduates become multi-trade mechanics, Gunnells hopes to qualify for jobs at area companies such as Kimberly Clark or the Savannah River Site in Aiken. His course load includes classes in instrumentation and electronics.

Beech Island resident Veronica Thigpen, 32, is studying radiology control at Aiken Tech.

“I enjoyed the GED classes because Sister Mary wouldn’t move on to a new part of a subject until everybody knew what was going on,” Thigpen said.

“If you needed one-on-one time, the teacher was there for you,” she continued. “She didn’t let the students just say they knew it, she would make sure they did. Even if you had a problem, it wasn’t a problem for her to go back over something if you needed it. That’s special. A lot of teachers in college, for instance, hate to have to go back over something.”

Thigpen started technical school in January and hopes to have her degree within two years. After that, she wants to qualify for a job in radiation control at the Savannah River Site. The work involves checking the grounds for radioactive materials and making sure nothing dangerous leaves the plant property, she said.

For more information about the GED programs or to help, call (803) 593-2623 or visit The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is located at 2443 Augusta Road in Gloverville.