Helping adult learners get GEDs and jobs

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Carol Sorgen
Shelly Abrams, a long-time volunteer
at South Baltimore Learning Center
Photo courtesy of Shelly Abrams

Shelly Abrams began volunteering with South Baltimore Learning Center (SBLC) 20 years ago, soon after the organization opened its doors. She lived at the time in Federal Hill, near the group’s original headquarters.

SBLC helps adult learners get their high school diplomas and offers career counseling. Abrams recalled that the neighborhood high school at that time had one of the highest dropout rates in the city.

“I have always been concerned about literacy and education, and wanted to volunteer in those areas to help improve young people’s access to employment opportunities,” she said.

“I felt that getting in on the ground floor of SBLC — which was a young organization at that time — would be a good way for me to help make an impact.”

Throughout her long tenure with SBLC, Abrams has served in a number of volunteer capacities: volunteer tutor, classroom instructor, board member and officer, and member of the advisory council, on which she still serves today.

SBLC offers classes in adult basic education, pre-GED and GED instruction (to prepare learners to take the high school equivalency tests), one-to-one tutoring for adults who are beginning readers, computer classes, career counseling, and academic counseling. It also manages the External Diploma Program, which enables qualified adults to earn their high school diploma by completing independent assignments on a flexible schedule rather than take the GED exam.

Putting SBLC on the map

Abrams has been particularly involved in fundraising efforts for SBLC, and her efforts on behalf of the organization earned her a Mayor’s Citation for Volunteer Service in 1997.

During her term as board treasurer, Abrams played an instrumental role in writing the first adult education and family literacy grant request to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). SBLC was the only community-based organization to receive this grant in 1994, which helped ensure its survival as a nonprofit organization.

With the first MSDE grant, SBLC was able to hire permanent full-time staff, as well as part-time adult education instructors and support staff.

The organization will honor Abrams at its March 31 gala, “Tip Your Hat to Learning Cabaret.”

“I could always rely on Shelly for specific help and also professional guidance and support — all of which are so valuable to an executive director,” said SBLC’s Executive Director Sonia Socha. “In the younger years of the organization, board members had to be ‘hands on,’ and Shelly was definitely that and more.”

Since  it opened in 1990, SBLC has provided functional literacy, life skills training and career services to Baltimore-area residents. The organization’s mission is to improve the self-sufficiency of educationally disadvantaged adults.

Each year, it serves over 800 adults ranging in age from 16 to 83. ​Maryland has almost 613,640 adults without a high school diploma. In Baltimore City, 38 percent of adults are either unable to read or read below the fourth grade level, and over 142,000 adults do not have a high school diploma.

Many volunteer options

The organization offers numerous volunteer opportunities.

Adult literacy tutors work one-on-one with adults with very low reading abilities. SBLC provides tutors with a free training session before being paired with a learner. The minimum commitment is two to four hours per week for one year. 

Classroom assistants lessen the strain on instructors with growing classroom sizes, providing small group instruction for learners and offering individual tutoring to those needing extra help. Again, SBLC provides a free training session. The time commitment is one to two class sessions per week for one semester.

Drop-in center tutors work with pre-GED and GED adult learners who are enrolled in SBLC classes. The minimum time commitment is a two-hour weekly session for one semester.

Office assistants answer phones, take messages, welcome visitors, make copies, prepare mailings, file student materials, distribute fliers in the community, assist with database entry, make phone calls and help with other office needs.

Special events assistants help run various events throughout the year, including the spring gala and learner recognition events in the fall and spring. Generally, volunteers contribute two hours for the event.

Abrams has helped in nearly all these roles.

The success of the organization has kept Abrams involved all these years. “Just hearing the outcomes of the people we have helped keeps us all motivated,” said Abrams, pointing out that many of SBLC’s volunteers have been there as long as, if not longer than, she has.

“This is such an amazing organization, and I am proud of it and honored to be recognized by it,” Abrams said.

On March 31, SBLC will present its spring gala from 7 to 11:30 p.m., at Montgomery Park Business Center (1800 Washington Blvd.). Individual tickets are $100 per person in advance and $110 per person at the door. SBLC hopes to raise more than $75,000 through the gala to support its educational services and operations.

For tickets, or more information on volunteering, call (410) 625-4215 or visit www.southbaltimorelearns.org. SBLC is located at 28 E. Ostend St.