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One woman's legacy: 40 years of getting lives on track

Gwen Cottman strode into Betty Vick Dorsey's rocky life and dismissed all excuses. That Dorsey, a 52-year-old breast cancer survivor was nursing a sick husband and had broken her finger while trying to break his fall evoked sympathy.

Gwen Cottman strode into Betty Vick Dorsey's rocky life and dismissed all excuses.

That Dorsey, a 52-year-old breast cancer survivor was nursing a sick husband and had broken her finger while trying to break his fall evoked sympathy.

But, insisted Cottman: Dorsey still had to take that test that could change her life.

"Ms. Cottman told me, 'You can write with your left hand,' " said Dorsey, of Chichester.

Without that figurative "kick in the butt," which Cottman applied regularly, Dorsey said that she wouldn't have earned the high school equivalency credential she's been yearning for since she dropped out of high school in the 1970s.

That dropout decision appeared to relegate Dorsey to a life of struggle that she navigated with little confidence.

Cottman, 65, helped change that, and that's what Dorsey said recently when Cottman was honored by the Delaware County Literacy Council in ceremonies held to commemorate the agency's 40th anniversary year.

For four decades, Cottman, of Penns Grove, Salem County, has taught GED test preparation, adult literacy, and ESL, often to people whose lives had taken turns they didn't anticipate.

Cottman has taught the three subjects as a teacher in the Chester-Upland School District and with the Delaware County Literacy Council, in Chester.

"Teach one, and you reach many," said Cottman, paraphrasing Dr. Frank Laubach, the Christian missionary who popularized the concept during his work to eradicate illiteracy in the Philippines.

"You work with people and you can help change their lives," Cottman said.

In 40 years, Cottman has taught thousands, including a middle-aged biker who died in a motorcycle accident while working toward his GED and a teenager who ran away from home when her father didn't want her going to Cottman for instruction. She ran to Cottman.

They were among the more than 700 who have walked through the doors of the council's 1770s-era stone headquarters on Providence Road looking for help - to get a better job, learn a new language, or earn that equivalent to a high diploma, an achievement that eluded them as a teenager.

"There is some life event that spurs them to say, 'I need to do something better,' " said Kate Hyzer, the council's executive director. "It's frequently the birth of a child or a birthday that ends in a zero."

Most are women. Many are in their mid- to late 30s. About one half are immigrants, usually learning English on a path to citizenship. The other 50 percent are native-born students who didn't finish high school.

For Dorsey, passing the GED test amounted to a pathway.

"I want to be a pastor," said Dorsey, who is studying to do just that. "I need a GED. I have to be an example."

So in 2013, Dorsey enrolled at the Delaware County Literacy Council offices, and eventually became Cottman's student, forging a relationship between two women whose backgrounds are far apart.

Compared with Dorsey's, Cottman's life followed a smooth arc. She is one of six children born to a Navy serviceman and a teacher.

The oldest girl, Cottman was the nurturer - and disciplinarian - who cared for her younger siblings and worked at a day-care center as a teen.

She earned a scholarship to college, a bachelor's degree in education, and married a mechanic. She raised two sons: a homeland security officer and manager at DuPont. She is active in her church.

Dorsey's life was marked by upheaval.

Her parents died before Dorsey reached the age of 10. One of 10 children, Dorsey was sent away to a boarding school for orphans. She left there to live with a sister in Chester and then later another sister in Maryland.

"I was an angry, problem child," Dorsey said. "No one ever told me I was capable, until Ms. Cottman."

Dorsey left school, and embarked on a troubled life of just making it while a raising a son. She survived on low-paying jobs and government support, but was buoyed by her faith. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and underwent a double mastectomy.

In 2013, she decided to take GED test, but something always threatened to interrupt her efforts: her husband's truck accident, the removal of two benign tumors, a broken finger.

But Cottman "would stay late and teach me," Dorsey said.

Cottman was adamant that Dorsey finish before she would be required to take a revamped - and more difficult - GED test administered starting in January 2014.

Dorsey passed in 2013 and started a cleaning business with her husband in 2014. She underwent breast reconstructive surgery on Friday.

"I'm so proud of her," Cottman said.

Cottman planned to retire with the old test. But so many of her students begged her to stay until they finished their studies that she's back at the council as a volunteer.

"When I see them graduate and walk up there and get that diploma," Dorsey said, "I just feel happy that I was able to help."