GED opens doors for proud graduate

Written by Melanie G. Snyder on Thursday - June 19, 2014.

On Thursday evening, June 12, Zena Gunsallus did something that, 10 years ago, she didn't know if she'd ever be able to do. She walked across the stage at McCaskey East High School wearing cap and gown to accept her GED diploma. Five days later, on Tuesday, June 17, she had another graduation: from Lancaster County Drug Court.

"I dropped out of school when I was 17 in my senior year of high school because I was pregnant," Gunsallus explains. "I didn't have a great life." She struggled with addiction, and wound up in and out of Lancaster County Prison. She spent four years trying to complete Drug Court.

"I made plenty of mistakes," she admits. "Finally, I realized I needed to change my life," she says. 

"I had always known I wanted to go to beauty school, but just never had the motivation." She knew that to get into beauty school, she'd have to have her GED. She started taking GED classes offered by IU13 at Lancaster County Prison through a US Department of Education grant program called PRSCEO - Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities. The PRSCEO program was initiated at the federal level because "a growing body of evidence shows that providing offenders with education and training increases their employment opportunities, addresses their cognitive deficits, and helps reduce their likelihood of recidivating."*

Lancaster County is one of only three sites in the nation that has received a grant from the US Department of Education to implement this model. Lancaster County's IU13 Adult Education and the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO) partnered to submit the grant application and have been working closely together since July 1, 2013 to implement the program here. The program includes GED Preparation classes and Adult Basic Education classes at both Lancaster County Prison and PA CareerLink of Lancaster County. Participants also receive assistance with career and education planning and have the opportunity to participate in supportive reentry services through the RMO as well as reentry employment services like the Ready2Work program and occupational skills trainings at the CareerLink. Trish Link, Assistant Adult Education Director for IU-13, manages the project. 

The GED classes for women at LCP are taught by IU13 instructor Mary Edith Leichliter.

"If it wasn't for Mary Edith at the prison, I would not have pursued this at that time," Gunsallus says.

Several weeks into her GED classes at the prison . . .

. . . Gunsallus was released. She was able to pick up right where she'd left off with GED classes offered by IU13 at PA CareerLink of Lancaster County. "I went to the classes at CareerLink four times a week for about a month. I took the practice tests. I wanted to be really sure I was ready. I really had to work on my math!"

Because the GED test would be changing at the end of 2013, Gunsallus knew the clock was ticking and she was determined to pass the test before the end of the year. On December 16th, she took the GED tests and passed.

In January, she started classes at Empire Beauty School. She hopes to finish by this November and become licensed as a cosmetologist.

"My GED has opened lots of doors for me," she says. Walking across the stage to get her diploma, she says, "was humbling. I'm a 28 year-old mother and a full-time student. I'm glad I got the opportunity to do this."

Best of all was having her family at the graduation ceremony on June 12th. Her father, stepmother and stepsister were all there to cheer her on.

"My dad is my best friend and role model," she explains. "Just to see the look on his face when I came off of the stage with my diploma was the best feeling in the world. I finally gave my family the chance to see me doing something really great!"


Note: Thirty-six other Returning Citizens who participated in Lancaster County's PRSCEO GED program were also awarded GED diplomas at the June 12 graduation ceremony. We'll be sharing additional stories of some of these graduates in the coming weeks.

* US Department of Education: A Reentry Education Model:

About the Author

Melanie G. Snyder

Melanie G. Snyder

Melanie G. Snyder serves as the Executive Director of the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO). She was a featured TEDx speaker at the first-ever TEDx event in Lancaster. 

She is an NIC-certified Offender Workforce Development Specialist, a certified Global Career Development Facilitator, and a certified instructor for the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Healing Communities model. She is also a trained restorative justice mediator.

Prior to Melanie's involvement with the RMO, she spent several years researching and writing the book Grace Goes to Prison: An Inspiring Story of Hope and Humanity (Brethren Press, 2009), which tells the true story of a woman who volunteered in Pennsylvania's state prisons for over 30 years, creating inmate education and reentry programs based on principles of restorative justice. After Grace Goes to Prison was published, Melanie traveled throughout the United States, doing speaking engagements and meeting with other reentry and restorative justice professionals to discuss criminal justice issues and exchange information and ideas.