Jerilyn Graves is unemployed, lives on public assistance and at 32 wonders if she'll ever have a job.
One of her biggest regrets is that she dropped out of high school in 1998, her junior year.
"I was into alcohol, and I was suspended from school in April, so I never went back for my senior year," said Graves, of Ponemah, Minn. "And the following September I just stayed home."
With a high school drop-out rate among the highest in the state, there are plenty of people like Graves on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. More than half of the tribe's adults are unemployed.
But a program called New Beginnings is showing promise at luring unemployed tribal members back in the classroom. It aims to prepare them for the workforce, and then ultimately provide transportation to get them to job sites off the reservation.
Graves, a participant in the program, has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse issues for 15 years. Last March, tribal police arrested her for fighting with her boyfriend. A tribal court convicted her of domestic assault, drug possession and child endangerment. She lost custody of her three children, now in the care of her mother.
Graves said she has long believed the chances of her getting a job and contributing positively to reservation life were slim.
"I'm not qualified for anything," she said. "Due to my criminal record now, it's like I can't get hired anywhere."
But Graves is among a growing number of high school dropouts on the reservation who are pursing their general education diploma through New Beginnings. Last year, the program graduated a record 82 students. That's nearly triple the number of graduates from 2009.
Just two weeks into her coursework, Graves already is thinking about going to college once she earns her GED. Her goal is to turn her life around so she can regain custody of her children.
"This program helps me feel, feel good about myself," she said. "It makes me feel better every day I come. It's like I did something."
POOR EDUCATION RECORD
For many years Red Lake has had a dismal record when it comes to education. Although the statewide drop-out rate in 2010 was about 5 percent, Red Lake High had a dropout rate of about 44 percent. New Beginnings administrators estimate that half of adults on the reservation have no high school diploma or GED certificate.
Administrators at the New Beginnings facility in Redby are trying to reverse that trend.
Until just a few years ago, students seeking a GED were basically on their own and received little help from the tribe, said Laura Malott, adult basic education coordinator for the program. The band has since obtained state and federal grants to help New Beginnings offer classroom tutoring, counseling free daycare and a place to study.
Malott said she expects another record number of graduates this spring.
"Once they do it, then their children can see that they're being successful," she said. "Then they're going to be encouraged and then their friends and family members, and it's just going to keep going."
JOBS NOT FOUND
What's frustrating for new GED graduates, Malott said, is that there are few jobs on the reservation.
New Beginnings director Marvin Hanson said the answer is to help tribal members find jobs off the reservation. Hanson landed grants from the federal government and from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development that provide funding to run three vans and a 16 passenger bus to transport tribal members to jobsites around the region.
Hanson wants to build partnerships with regional employers like Polaris in Roseau. A tribal van makes the one-hour-and-45-minute commute to Roseau each workday. But so far, Polaris has hired only four tribal members.
Polaris officials declined to comment, but a company spokesman said they were disappointed there were only a handful of applicants.
Some applicants couldn't pass a drug test, Hanson said. Others were disqualified because of criminal records or lack of a high school diploma or GED.
Hanson said New Beginnings aims to help more tribal members overcome those problems. He'd eventually like to see busloads of workers traveling daily to Roseau, Bemidji, and other places that have jobs.
"We're showing our people here that there are businesses that are interested in them," Hanson said. "And I don't know if a lot of them really knew that before... but the key to everything is they need to be qualified to do those jobs."
NEW INTEREST IN EDUCATION
The spike in people working toward their GED has led to a jump in enrollment at Red Lake Nation College. The fledgling school had 102 students enrolled last fall. That's more than double the enrollment of five years ago.
Lewis Thunder, 20, dropped out of high school in 2010. He earned his GED last November and is now in his first semester at the tribal college. Thunder — who is unemployed and living at the homeless shelter in Red Lake — said he'd eventually like to transfer to the technical college in Bemidji, where he wants to study forestry.
"I don't want to be stuck on the reservation all my life," Thunder said. "I don't want to be stuck living day by day like the rest of everybody else, you know. I want to go and explore more things, and the only way I can do that is through higher education."
The New Beginnings program plans to soon bring busloads of people to Bemidji to fill out applications for jobs in town. The tribe is also inviting employers from throughout northwestern Minnesota to an on-reservation job fair in March.