DANVILLE — When the economy turned sour and her work as a photographer slowed, Mary Berver-Zimmerman began thinking about a new career.
The Rossville woman decided to study to become a certified nursing assistant because "I wanted a steady job and something with a future, and I wanted to help people."
The only problem: Berver-Zimmerman had not graduated from high school.
Then she learned about the Accelerating Opportunities program at Danville Area Community College. The grant-funded initiative pairs adult education with career instruction in health care and automotive technology areas, allowing students to simultaneously earn a high school equivalency certificate and a CNA or automotive repair certificate in about 1 year for little or no cost.
"It's a great opportunity for people who are studying to get their GED to also be able to start working on their career path," program coordinator Kathy Leary said.
Normally, Leary said, people would need a high school diploma or GED to enroll in a college-level course.
Accelerating Opportunities is funded through a partnership of five of the nation's leading philanthropies — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Open Societies Foundations.
It was established to assist the more than 1.8 million adults in Illinois who lack a high school diploma. By 2018, 64 percent of all jobs in the state will require workers with some form of post-secondary training, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
"The goal of the program is twofold — to help them get work as soon as possible and to encourage them to further their education," Leary said, adding students who complete the program will also have 12 hours of college credit toward an associate degree.
"Sometimes when you're in high school, you think, 'I'm never going to use this,'" Leary said. But "the program allows them to study what they want to do as a career. Hopefully it will encourage them to continue on that career path."
Program officials want to attract people 16 and older. Interested applicants must attend an hour-long orientation session.
Because the program is grant-funded, Leary said, there's no cost to students. Tuition is waived and books and most course expenses are covered.
"Typically, these students have a lot of barriers and distractions (to getting an education). We want to eliminate as many barriers as we can," she said, adding if the program won't pay for something such as child care or transportation "we will certainly help them figure that out."
This spring, five students completed the program. In addition to earning their GED, three now have automotive repair certificates and two — including Berver-Zimmerman — received their CNA license.
Berver-Zimmerman has already launched her job search. Now, she hopes not only to find work in a hospital or nursing home and but also to continue her education at DACC and later a four-year college or university.
"I'd like to study speech pathology," she said. "Just to be able to help someone that way would be great."
Another student, Dylan Taylor, of Danville, received his GED and automotive repair certificate.
"It fit perfectly with what I needed (his GED) and what I wanted to do, and I didn't have to pay a dime," he said.
Taylor also plans to continue his education at DACC while he works.
"My future plans are to open my own shop. So I want to slowly finish all of the mechanic classes that DACC offers," he said.
Orientation sessions for Danville Area Community College's Accelerating Opportunities program will be held at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. June 6 at Vermilion Hall, Room 306, at DACC, 2000 E. Main St., Danville.
Orientation is for fall classes that begin Aug. 19.
It is for people 16 and older who are interested in getting their GED and certified nursing assistant or automotive repair certificate.
There is no cost to participate. However, interested applicants must attend one of the two orientation sessions.
To register, call program coordinator Kathy Leary at 443-8585.