By Kim Meyer-Webb | Photography by Dero Sanford | Shot on location at the Central Arkansas Library System – John Gould Fletcher Library
“Our mission is changing lives through education, training and employment,” explains Goodwill Industries of Arkansas President and CEO Brian Marsh. The organization believes that all individuals have the capacity to succeed with the right resources – despite disability, illiteracy, a criminal record or an unfortunate series of events. Congruent with this vision, The Excel Center® at Goodwill Industries of Arkansas – established in 2017 – offers nontraditional students an opportunity to earn a high school diploma.
The Excel Center, a high school created specifically for adults, is strategically designed to eliminate the obstacles that initially prevented graduation. This no-cost education offers flexible + accelerated class schedules, with life coaches who encourage and counsel each student; additional resources include childcare and transportation assistance. Goodwill Arkansas emphasizes hands-on, relationship-based services so its clients have mentors and cheerleaders throughout their journey. For enthusiastic Arkansans filled with potential, like Avery Jennings, it’s creating an almost unimaginable future.
Avery Jennings graduated from The Excel Center last month with plans to attend Pulaski Technical College in the fall and study web design – which he believes is “the perfect balance between science, math and art” – future plans also include UA Little Rock. His experience – like many of the 315,000 Arkansans over the age of 25 who don’t have high school diploma – is filled with hardships and interferences that escalated. He considers his life coach Courtney “the Band-Aid and Neosporin of life.” He adds, “I can text her anytime. Her advice and support really get me through the tough, rough days.”
After the untimely death of his sister, Avery turned to gangs for camaraderie that ended in a parking lot with gunshots that left him paralyzed. He believes, “It’s part of the journey that brought me back to reality and my family’s values.” While learning a new life as a paraplegic, his girlfriend Gina noticed The Excel Center and he remembered a promise to his mother, “I told her I would finish high school.” Through tenacity and an unwavering can-do attitude, Avery is convinced “good will happen” as his story is still unfolding.
“We like to say ‘we are who we serve,’” adds Goodwill Industries of Arkansas Vice President of Community Engagement Leslie Heizman. The organization plans to expand The Excel Center, offering adults outside of Central Arkansas access to an education and more qualified employment – like Avery. Brian notes, “Operational costs for The Excel Center are currently funded 100% by the sale of donated merchandise at Goodwill’s retail stores. We are working with Governor Asa Hutchinson and his staff to locate funding for school expansion.” Avery realizes that now when he tells his children that education is a critical component for a successful life, he followed this sound advice – from his Uncle Larry – and is leading by example.