PEKIN — When Matt Gillespie was unable to complete high school for medical reasons, he knew having no diploma closed many doors to him.

“Having an education is incredibly valuable,” Gillespie, 21, said. “You need a high school education, at least, to get any kind of job besides working at a gas station, for example.”

In August 2018, he enrolled in the YWCA Pekin’s adult literacy program in hopes of opening doors by earning his high school general equivalency diploma.

Last month, he became the last person to complete his GED requirements through YWCA Pekin’s Adult Literacy Center, 315 Buena Vista Ave. The facility’s name changed last month to the Heart of Illinois Adult Literacy Center, but the objective is the same as it has been for more than 30 years — to provide basic adult education in reading, writing, math and English as a second language. The center’s programs are free and offered year-round throughout Tazewell County and surrounding areas. 

It is primarily funded by a grant from the Illinois State Library, said Tonja Ohnemus, the center’s adult literacy director. However, funding for pre-GED and GED services is provided by a smaller grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

″(The Illinois State Library does) not allow us to do pre-GED or GED services,” she said. “How we’re able to help people with GEDs is through this other, smaller grant we have. We were able to provide vouchers for the practice exams and also the content exams.”

Gillespie said getting his GED had been on his mind since 2014, when he was forced to drop out of high school. In addition to wanting to make himself more employable, he believed he had the capacity to complete high school and wanted to prove that to himself.

“I knew that I was smart enough to graduate high school,” he said. “I’d just been dealt a bad hand and wasn’t able to get my education in a conventional way.”

Mike Bohn, a volunteer tutor for the literacy center, provided Gillespie with tutoring in mathematics, an academic discipline that gave Gillespie particular cause for apprehension.

“I’ve always been bad with numbers,” Gillespie said. “I don’t remember ever really understanding math all through school. I just kind of scraped by.”

Bohn said Gillespie’s intuitions when it came to mathematics were very sound, but he had some initial trouble understanding the processes involved in solving complex math problems. Practice homework assignments, however, quickly helped him learn the processes.

“You could see his confidence building after about a month and a half,” said Bohn. “Then he really took it from there.”

In addition to tutoring Gillespie in mathematics, Bohn also helped him prepare for his GED exams, which covered language arts, mathematics, science, social studies and the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.

“We would sit down, and I would prepare a practice exam that said, ‘Here are some areas you have some weaknesses in,’” Bohn said. “There’s a whole GED practice book that has great examples and discussion. We just went through the areas in that book and worked one-on-one. Then I’d assign some homework, and he’d come back in a couple of days and we’d go over that.”

Gillespie is currently looking for employment, having decided that he wanted to commit all of his energy toward earning his GED before he turned his attention to the job market. However, he has by no means ruled out the possibility of attending college to study agriculture, ecology and law.

″(Going to college) is something I want to do,” he said. “But school has never been easy for me. I plan to at least dip my toe in the water. I hear that Western Illinois University has really good agriculture and ecology courses, and that’s something I’ve always been interested in. I love being outside, and I love the environment. If that’s something I can study, it’s something that clicks for me.”

The time it takes for an adult learner to earn a GED varies with each individual, said Ohnemus. Some learners may enter the literacy center needing to pass only one GED content examination, while others need to take all five content tests.

"(Gillespie) did a lot of self-study, and his confidence level and how he’s grown since August 2018 are amazing,” Ohnemus said. “I’m very proud of him and his accomplishments and, now, what he can do going forward.”

For more information, visit the center's website, www.ywcapekin.org.