The air at Bear Creek Secondary School was thick with sentiment on Thursday night. That’s because 240 adults walked across the stage to complete a journey started sometimes 40 years before. These are the high school graduates of the Barrie Learning Centre in the Bayfield Mall, part of the Simcoe County District School Board.

It’s an unusual school. All its students really want to be there!

Take Cathy Manning, for instance. Cathy was the oldest of six children in a rural Quebec community. When her mother became bedridden after the birth of her seventh child, Cathy’s school career came to an abrupt end. Half way through grade eight Cathy came home... to manage the home, work the farm, raise the kids, and keep house. It was a logical, acceptable thing to do in a farming community in 1962.

“My life was spent working the house and the farm,” she recalls. And at age 18 she moved out to get her first paying job, looking after kids. A year later she married and started her own family, and four children later, at age 26 she was widowed when her husband died of cancer. “I was alone, 26, and I worked three jobs to support my kids” Cathy worked mostly in factory settings. She moved to Barrie in 1968.

A terrible workplace accident severed her right leg and she required surgery to rebuild and transplant bone. She could no longer carry on the work she’d been doing at an aluminum plant in the Barrie area.

As she started to look for other work she realized that a high school diploma really mattered. And so Cathy went back to school, to complete grade 8 and the next four years of study. She got credit for her maturity and life experiences, and with her heart in her mouth and her self esteem in pocket, she entered a school room, took upgrading and started on a journey of discovery.

“I felt leery and once I got on, I just kept on going. I got grade 10 math, grade 11 and 12 English. I took computers, a mastery course and now have all my certificates. I took grade 12 accounting... everything that I needed, I took.”

Cathy credits incredible teachers who encouraged her. She’s also thankful to Workers Compensation who funded her education and living while she’s been in school. And now, with her newly earned diploma, Cathy Manning is proud of her resumé and her skills as she’s out looking for a job. On Thursday night Cathy was called to the front of the room--the eyes of all four of her adult children beaming on her--to receive the school’s Women in Technology award.

And Paul Correia’s reason for leaving high school at age 17 was sheer boredom. The ‘bucks’ offered by a job in construction were alot more attractive than English or Science or Computers. Paul was injured when crushed by the falling walls of a deep hole. And certainly the $30-$45 an hour for overtime had come to an end as he coped with shoulder injuries and back trouble that spelled an end to his construction career. Even his welding certificate was of little use!

Today Paul has a future as bright as the smile on his face. Aptitude testing told Paul he’d do well in work involving environment and engineering. He entered the Barrie Learning Centre, full of trepidation about his ability to keep up, and found grade 11 Math and Computers Level 1 were the beginning of an enthusiasm that he expects to last forever. His Computer Mastery Course turned him on to the power of the digital chip as he became proficiant in Word, Excel, Power Point etc. And on Monday night last week he finished his autocad course.

“I’ve found my aptitude, I’m so excited,” he told me. “I’m entering Georgian College in September to take three years Environmental Engineering, with an option for a fourth year.” If life is perfect he’ll go into water quality management.

As Paul looks back at his months at the Barrie Learning Centre, he credits the teachers for his success. “They motivated me, they’re proud of me, they always encouraged me. They told me to relax.”

He looks back to high school and his quick exit before graduation. And his next job will be one he loves. “If you don’t do what you like, it’s a job. If you do what you like, it’s a labour of love,” he said.

Paul’s young children and wife were beaming from the audience Thursday night as their graduate was called on stage to receive the Barrie Learning Centre Staff Award. I guess Paul was as big a hit with them as they were with him!

Sonia Pinter left her Toronto high school in grade 9. “It was too fast, too hard, too distracting, too much!” she remembers. She came to the Barrie Learning Centre in 2001 and credits her phenomenal teachers for her eagerness to take everything: 2 law courses, marketing, parenting, 2 psychology, biology, sociology, math, english and computers. Sonia wants to work in the law or counselling field. She’s love to go to Georgian College for addictions counsellor diploma. For now she’s looking for work in the medical or legal field. On Thursday night, Sonia received the Terrence Hussein award for overall excellence.

In all, 240 adults received their grade 12 diplomas Thursday night. And every one of them was a willing, grateful student, eager to learn, eager to change their lives.

Cathy sums it up best, perhaps. “Having my kids was the most important thing to happen to me. This is the second.”

Thanks, Cathy. Thanks, Paul. Thanks, Sonia... for having the courage to walk into a strange place, sit down at a table and open yourselves to learning that you’d long left behind.

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