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Goodwill shoppers and donors help students earn diplomas, degrees — and a fresh start

Goodwill’s brand is well-known, but its free classes for adults seeking to finish high school, and earn college credits, is unfamiliar to many of the shoppers and donors who make the classes possible.

Tamico Flack, a recent graduate of the Goodwill Helms Academy in Stratford, displays the title of a self-help book she's written. The Helms Academy helps adults like Flack earn high school diplomas and college credits.
Tamico Flack, a recent graduate of the Goodwill Helms Academy in Stratford, displays the title of a self-help book she's written. The Helms Academy helps adults like Flack earn high school diplomas and college credits.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Shawn Smith got a full-time helper’s job with an electrical contractor in Philadelphia and is continuing his education at Delaware County Community College.

Lauren Pelley went to work at a mental health center in Cherry Hill and has completed training as a Certified Recovery Support Practitioner.

As for Tamico Flack?

“I wrote a self-help book,” she said. “The title is Becoming the Real You.”

Each of these recent graduates of the Helms Academy didn’t finish at their respective high schools in Philadelphia; Buena, N.J.; and Trenton. None of them had sat in a classroom in years before enrolling in the innovative, tuition-free program offered by Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey & Philadelphia, where they were able to earn a diploma — and reset the course of their lives.

Named for Goodwill founder Edgar James Helms, the academy enables people whose job or life prospects have been stymied by the lack of a high school diploma to not only earn one, but also earn credits from community colleges in Philadelphia and South Jersey at the same time. Such credits can be applied toward completion of four-year degree programs at Rutgers, Drexel, and Temple universities.

“When you work one-on-one with students like I do, and you help them achieve goals or remove road blocks to their goals, their successes are very moving to witness,” said Charles “Jeff” Jeffers, adult education coordinator for the Helms Academy.

More than 100 students have graduated since Goodwill of Southern New Jersey & Philadelphia launched the program in 2013. The Johnstown, Pa., Goodwill has established its own Helms Academy, and a few others have developed similar programs.

“People think of us as a place you donate to or shop,” said Mark Boyd, president and CEO of the Goodwill Southern New Jersey-Philadelphia. “People have a sense we do something good, but they don’t know it is. This is what we do. This is why you donate or shop at Goodwill. You’re helping your neighbor earn their diploma.”

Boyd, who served as New Jersey’s commissioner of labor under former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and has “always had a passion for second-chance education,” said the Helms Academy helps to fill a void. Adult alternative or “night school” programs in public school districts have largely been eliminated for budgetary reasons, and remedial or other classes offered by private organizations or for-profit schools can be unaffordable to many.

“With the Helms Academy, you can earn a diploma and be halfway to your associate’s degree, and you have not spent a dime, or burned up your Pell [federal student aid] Grant,” said Boyd.

“We don’t have many options like the Helms Academy in the city,” said David E. Thomas, vice president for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Community College of Philadelphia.

CCP also works with Drexel University, which hosts Helms Academy classes and provides tutors and other services to help students “brush up and master the content” of subjects required for high school completion and community college matriculation, said Thomas.

Classes, which have long been available online, have continued in a hybrid of in-person and remote learning since the pandemic struck.

Smith, who’s 38 and the father of a young daughter, said he dropped out of West Philadelphia High School in 2000, not long before he would have graduated. He attributes his decision to youthful rebellion and family complications; ultimately, he ended up homeless but was assisted by Covenant House. Later, he worked as a security guard for 10 years.

“I was hitting the ceiling. I couldn’t go any higher financially,” he said. “I knew I had to do better for my kid and myself.”

Another agency referred him to Helms Academy. Smith was nervous about being back in a classroom, wondering if he was “going to remember those damn fractions,” but quickly became comfortable due to the close relationship between staff and students.

He was able to complete the work to earn his diploma quickly. “It has your name on it,” he said. “It was exhilarating.”

Diploma in hand, Smith decided to enter a 10-week electrician training program offered at the Academy of Industrial Arts in Southwest Philly. He got hired as a helper by an electrical contractor and is working full-time while pursuing classes to help meet professional certification requirements at Delaware County Community College.

“You gotta go back, right that wrong, and fix what you broke,” Smith said. “Unless you hit the lottery or get a big inheritance, there’s no way to do that without education.”

Pelley, a 35-year-old mother of two, said she was struggling with undiagnosed depression and other issues when she dropped out of Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County in 2003. She learned about the Helms Academy after seeing a flier while shopping at the Goodwill retail store in Stratford adjacent to the Academy offices.

“You always say you’re going to go back someday and finish high school,” said Pelley. “You have to say, ‘Today’s that day.’ Because if I hadn’t, it would be another 10 years.”

At the start of classes in 2020 just before the pandemic hit, “I went in kind of afraid it was going to be high school all over again,” she said. “But the staff was so patient, and it was as if my tutor sensed my apprehension about math. It helped build my confidence. They were great.”

Pelley, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, is working in mental health and pursuing a degree in psychology. “It’s my dream,” she said. “It’s exactly why I had to get my diploma.”

Flack, 46, lives in Stratford and also became aware of the Helms Academy as a Goodwill shopper. She left Trenton High after becoming pregnant and giving birth to a child with a bilateral cleft lip and open palate.

“I was told that if I didn’t learn how to feed him he would be taken away from me. So I did what any mother would do, I dropped out of high school figuring I could always go back later,” she said.

Flack went on to raise her son, and a second child, but at one point was “so desperate for a diploma” that she spent $600 for a program that yielded a certificate, but little else.

“I wanted the real thing,” she said. Helms enabled her to earn it.

“Before, there was a brick wall in front of me. Now, I can apply for any job,” she said. “Getting the diploma built my confidence.”

So much so that Flack wrote and is self-publishing her book.

“It’s all about stepping out on faith,” the author said. “And doing what you have to do.”