It’s the kind of place you grow attached to.
That’s how Louisiana native Sarah Singleton describes Women to the World, Inc. (WTW) and its division, Partnering Ambassadors for Life and Service (PALS).
Based in Athens, Georgia, WTW is dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged women and children around the world. The non-profit, founded in 1985 by Doris Aldrich, provides job skills training, language studies, adult education and health assistance to women suffering from poverty, abuse, disease, war and famine in countries like Afghanistan, Kenya and Burkina Faso.
However, it is their local adult education program PALS that makes the biggest impact on women in Athens-Clarke County and the surrounding areas.
The PALS Institute of Athens provides GED preparation for English and Spanish speakers, computer and business classes, life skills and education in basic literacy. Singleton serves as the director of curriculum, as well as an assistant to President Aldrich.
Aldrich created WTW, and eventually PALS, after noticing the hardships and suffering women endure during her trips overseas. Sue Alewine, an administrative assistant for WTW, has known Aldrich since WTW’s founding.
“I met Doris in the 80s and she said, ‘Sue, my heart breaks for women who need assistance but they aren’t receiving it from their families, from their country, from their church, from any other source.’ These are the women we want to reach, the ones we want to empower, whether it’s poverty, dependency or abuse. That’s what Women to the World began doing,” she said.
Nonetheless, women also face challenges here in the states, which prompted the creation of PALS. A serious but largely unknown problem in Athens is the literacy rate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, 16 percent of Clarke County residents lacked basic prose literacy skills.
Singleton notes that a lack of knowledge of educational resources among residents is a major roadblock to pursuing an adult education in the community.
“A lot of people don’t know where to get things or what questions to ask and they end up in loops,” she said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the times that discourages them.”
Students enrolled in PALS hail from around the world, including Mexico, Bangladesh, Africa and South America. According to Singleton, they often enter the program with literacy problems.
“We’re literally the last step for them before they give up,” Singleton said. “They’re at rock bottom and we have to get them to stable mentally before there’s even a chance for them to learn anything.”
Aldrich explained that in order to combat literacy, PALS teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). But learning ESL and EFL while preparing for the GED exam is particularly tough when balancing education with life’s responsibilities.
“They’re trying to master it from an adult mindset, with a family, two or three jobs or trying to run a home with children,” Aldrich said. “It’s really a challenge and some of the women are in trauma due to their life circumstances. These are all real issues that we deal with.”
According to Singleton, on completion of the program, about $3,000 worth of work goes into each woman, after calculating supplies, the GED exam fee, the time of the volunteers and the time of the staff. To encourage women to join, PALS eliminates a financial roadblock by paying for all supplies and the GED exam fee. Singleton says they only ask one thing of their students, a $10 commitment fee.
Last year, the organization ran into a major obstacle when the state launched a new GED program beginning in 2014. Students taking the prior exam had until the end of 2013 to pass. This meant that all scores for the exam, which is divided into five parts, were cancelled out if a student did not pass the entire GED by 2014.
“When we found out in the middle of last year that the test was going to be wiped out, we tried to get every committed woman through in six months,” Singleton said. “We had 20 committed, devoted women who showed up every day and stayed the entire day, who never left, never disappeared. Out of those 20, 18 of them went and took their test and passed the entire exam. Some of those women had just walked through the door.”
Despite the success of PALS, Singleton knows their work is a long way from finished. Though they have transitioned to the new GED curriculum standards, some challenges will never go away. Singleton says fear and a lack of confidence holds many women back from finishing their education. But she is dedicated to her students and to building up their self-esteem.
“We just have to find your learning pattern and work with it. That’s what I always tell them,” Singleton said. “It might take us awhile but we’ll find the pattern and we’ll get you through it.”
With such an ambitious mission, PALS and WTW are always seeking donations or volunteers. To contribute, visit www.womentotheworld.org or www.palsathens.org for more information.