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Forging ahead: Hilton Head resident earns GED after long road in life

Gloria Reyes
Gloria Reyes Submitted photo

Thanks to Joe Distelheim of Hilton Head Island for sharing the story behind a Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry student.

Joe is a retired newpaper editor who volunteers with the program.

"Never Give Up"

By Joe Distelheim

What's new this summer, Gloria Reyes?

Well, she got her GED -- her high school equivalency -- after 15 years of juggling family and studies.

And she applied to college the same day. She's already taking classes at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Bluffton, along with her oldest son, Alexander.

And she began studying for her American citizenship test, working with a tutor at Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.

And she began a new job, as a parent liaison at Royal Live Oaks Academy, a new K-8 charter school in Hardeeville.

In a manner of speaking, though, nothing's new. All her life, Gloria Reyes has been working harder than most of us can imagine to succeed in life.

She was born 41 years ago in a small town in El Salvador, the fifth of six children. Her mother divorced, and she acquired a stepfather and, as she puts it, "an unhappy situation." Her education ended with grade school -- high school would have meant a long bus ride the family couldn't afford.

One by one, the children were sent North. Gloria went at age 14, alone, to live with a cousin of her mother in New York, and the cousin's family -- nine people in all. In one room.

The cousin's kids went to school. Gloria didn't. She cooked and cleaned and took care of the children, with no pay. The cousin "took advantage of me," she says now.

One day the family and Gloria went to see Washington, D.C. "I disappeared," Gloria says simply.

She located another relative, a cousin. "I said, 'You think I can find a job here?' He said yes." She never went back to the New York family.

"I was a child," she says now. "It was too much for me at that age." At 15, she had her third family. She moved in with this cousin and his wife, and indeed found a job, in a Chinese area of D.C., working in food processing. The Salvadoran girl wound up making Korean kimchee in a Chinese neighborhood. There, she started to learn English.

She met her husband, Arquimides, a native of Nicaragua, in Washington. They're here, she says with a smile, because "he knows I like ocean water." He's a U.S. citizen who has his own flooring and carpeting business. Their children -- Alexander, 20, in college, Gabriel, 16, in high school, Lindsey, 13, in middle school -- are citizens because they were born in this country.

She's been in the Lowcountry for more than 15 years now, and working on her English -- which is now excellent -- and her GED ever since. She has impressed the people who've worked with her at Literacy Volunteers.

"The questions she asks," says her citizenship tutor, Sandy Kaufman, "take you way beyond what they require for citizenship. They're what you'd get in college level political science."

Applicants for citizenship must learn a good deal about American history and government, then survive a hundred-question test and an interview with the Immigration Service. Kaufman is working with her not only on lists of facts, but on understanding. "The hundred questions -- that's memorizing," he says. "The big part is the interview. You can't tell what the interviewer will ask."

Elyse Meister, her longtime GED tutor, says, "It was unbelievable how she persevered. She just never gave up. She passed one test at a time until the final one, the writing one, the most difficult." She passed that, too.

Two days earlier, an interviewer had asked Gloria Reyes what advice she'd have for other people who faced the kind of hurdles she has had.

"Perseverance," she said. "For me life has never been easy. But never give up. Keep trying and trying."

Hear an echo? Clearly, she has learned more than just her GED subjects.