Phila. Literacy Center's newest hall of famer

Linda Littlejohn is one of two tutors who will be honored by the Phila. Center for Literacy. Jay Meadway is the other honoree.
Linda Littlejohn is one of two tutors who will be honored by the Phila. Center for Literacy. Jay Meadway is the other honoree. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 25, 2014

For Linda Littlejohn, retirement is more than relaxation.

After 25 years as a dentist, she stopped working for the first time in 2003. But Littlejohn soon found she was too restless to be retired. She enrolled at Chestnut Hill College and got her master's degree in education, and put in seven years teaching special education in the Philadelphia schools.

Then she retired again. Sort of.

For more than a year, Littlejohn, 72, has been volunteering twice a week as a tutor at Philadelphia's Center for Literacy.

She is one of two volunteer tutors - the second is retired lawyer Jay Meadway - who will be inducted Tuesday evening into the center's hall of fame at its GED graduation.

This year is the first that tutors and students who have earned their GEDs will be honored at the same event. The graduation, which will be held at World Cafe Live on Walnut Street, brings the traditional graduation ceremony - pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns - to untraditional students.

"What we hear from a lot of students is one of the things they really regret is missing out on that graduation experience, so to be able to give them that graduation experience is something really important," said Kerry McKenzie, a marketing associate for the center.

The student speaker at the event is Jesus "Jay" Gonzales, who got his GED last summer after six months at the center and is now a student at Community College of Philadelphia.

Gonzales will share his story with the 32 adult students - up from about 20 students last year - honored for receiving their GEDs, along with the six students from community and ESL classes who will be recognized.

The road to getting his GED was a long one, interrupted by two prison sentences.

Gonzales, 54, always wanted an education. When he was released from a boys' home at age 17, he tried to enroll at a high school, but got held up by red tape and administrators he felt didn't want another problem on their hands.

So he enrolled in GED classes. During that time, his third child was born, so he had to put classes on hold and find work to support his family, which disappointed him.

"I really wanted an education," Gonzales said. "I knew the importance of an education."

Struggling to find good work without his GED, Gonzales saw friends who didn't seem to be struggling at all. These friends, Gonzales said, "had become prominent - in an illegal way."

So Gonzales did the same, and started dealing drugs.

During his second prison sentence, Gonzales enrolled in GED courses again and started working as a law clerk. He became so passionate about the law and helping others - he's studying to become a social worker or paralegal - that his GED courses took a backseat and he didn't feel prepared for the test: He passed all but one section.

Released from prison, he got a job at a friend's home-remodeling business and enrolled at the Center for Literacy. Within six months, he finished his GED.

"It felt like it was Christmas, my birthday, and the Fourth of July all at the same time," Gonzales said.

Though he doesn't receive assistance from the center anymore, Gonzales still drops by to use the computer lab and visit with people who helped along the way, like case manager Cortney Bruno.

On one of Gonzales' visits, Bruno asked him if he'd be willing to share his story at this year's graduation. Gonzales jumped at the chance to be a role model, something he said he didn't have in his younger years.

"With an education," he said, "you can rediscover and re-create yourself into someone you never thought you could be."

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