Ginger Liddell rocked back and forth from one foot to the other. She wrung her hands every so often. Her blue shirt shined brightly in the sun in contrast to her brown eyes and dark brown hair.
The 17-year-old Chippewa Falls resident, newly enrolled in the liberal arts program at Chippewa Valley Technical College, was nervous to tell her story. Yet she felt compelled.
“My mom and dad are both addicted to meth,” she said. “My mom is in prison for attempted homicide.”
The words didn’t come out easily. She looked up from the ground to gauge the response. She took a breath and her shoulders relaxed a bit.
It wasn’t long ago Liddell was headed down a troubled path as well.
At 15, Liddell dropped out of school. She was charged with theft and assault. She spent time in the Northwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center, and that’s where things started to turn around.
The opportunities offered to Liddell through the center’s 180-program, which focuses on educational and therapeutic programs, prepared her for the transition back into the community.
She worked hard to obtain her high school diploma through McKinley Charter School. She even took advanced placement courses for college credit.
“I’m not dumb,” she said. “I’m actually pretty smart.”
She just needed people to believe in her.
A turning point
Shayne Gerberding believed in Liddell. In fact, Gerberding said Liddell was the “picture perfect applicant” for Western Dairyland’s Chippewa Fresh Start program – the one that would help Liddell turn her life around.
Gerberding, the Fresh Start program manager, said Liddell was referred to Fresh Start by the juvenile detention center.
The Fresh Start program provides education, employment skills and career direction for at-risk young adults by involving them in constructing houses in the Chippewa Valley. When complete, the houses are sold to income-eligible families in the community.
“(Liddell) realized the road she was going down wasn’t the one she wanted to continue on,” Gerberding said. “She really just needed that extra support. That’s what we were able to give her. She was motivated and wanted to make changes – that’s Ginger (Liddell) for sure.”
Although the Fresh Start program doesn’t push post-secondary education, Gerberding said Liddell wanted to get her high school diploma. She wanted to go to college.
Liddell joined the program in May, while in the detention center. She was released from the detention center in September. For those five months, Liddell showed up at the Western Dairyland offices in Eau Claire to study and eventually receive her high school diploma at age 17 – a year early. Quite a feat for someone who dropped out of school at age 15, Gerberding noted.
Then she applied for college.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Liddell said with a smile. “I wasn’t so sure of my path a couple months ago. This is a huge milestone.
“I always wanted to go to CVTC. I like helping people.”
Liddell is enrolled in the liberal arts program that leads to a two-year associate degree. Her ultimate goal is to become an addiction specialist.
“You can tell when someone needs help. That’s what I was like,” Liddell said.
Now Liddell believes in herself.
“I realized I’m not that kind of a person anymore,” she said of the person who made bad choices. “I was put on this Earth to help people.”
Gerberding said that’s the most rewarding thing to see in her role at Western Dairyland.
“We see successes here all the time. Our youth are getting their driver’s licenses and graduating high school – those are really big steps in someone’s life,” Gerberding said. “They’re really proud of themselves. I think we’re really lucky because we get to see those successes.”
Paving the path to success
Shayne Gerberding has been the program manager for Western Dairyland’s Chippewa Fresh Start program for less than a year. But even in that time she’s witnessed many uplifting moments.
“When people are with us, half the time is spent building homes. But they’re not just building homes, they’re building those good habits,” Gerberding said. “We are here to teach them to maintain a job for the future.”
The Fresh Start program has been helping clients in need of a new path since 1998. Now, the program works with 16- to 24-year-old, at-risk young adults who need employment skills and career direction. Gerberding helps facilitate this by involving the clients in building that new house.
During the program, clients learn valuable skills, perform community service and prepare for post-secondary education or careers.
Western Dairyland offers education on-site with a teacher on staff who is able to help complete assignments. If they are already done with high school, post-secondary education or career prep is a focus, Gerberding said.
“We connect them with people in the field and help them work on independent living,” she said. “We help them learn how to rent for the first time – things that aren’t necessarily taught in school.”
All the clients earn a daily living allowance of $60 per day. Clients typically complete a 900-hour term, which is eight or nine months in duration. If they complete their hours successfully, they receive an award of $3,000 to put towards their education.
But one of the most rewarding skills that Gerberding helps instill is self-esteem. “When you see that they are proud of themselves, that’s really awesome,” Gerberding said.
This article originally appeared here.