JR Arias has a story to tell, a story he feels is important, not because it is unique; rather, he said, it is all too common.
As a young, Latino male, struggling in middle school, he was, he said, "prejudged," routinely put down by teachers who made comments like,
One day you'll be pumping my gas.
Best job you'll ever get is flipping burgers at McDonald's.
"I took it to heart," Arias said. "They were basically saying I'm nothing."
By the age of 15, he had dropped out of school.
By 19, though, he had found his way to Holyoke Community College's Adult Learning Center, where he earned his GED.
"I wanted to prove them wrong," Arias recalled. "I said, I'm going to make something of myself."
This summer, Arias and six other students at the center recorded short, personal narratives as part of a digital storytelling workshop. The project was conducted in collaboration with WGBY for its Project TOLD series and funded through a $5,000 grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.
Staff from WGBY taught the students how to use cameras and computer editing programs. The students, who were mostly enrolled in pre-GED and GED-prep classes, wrote the scripts, chose the photos and graphics, shot the video, put everything together and edited it all down into their own 2-minute movies.
Those stories were showcased at an event on Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Holyoke Heritage State Park Visitor's Center. Each student gave a brief introduction before their video was played.
Neftaly Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Holyoke and works in the public schools, created a video that explains his personal journey and success at the Adult Learning Center.
"With this story," he said, "I hope I can inspire and strengthen someone who is trying to get their education."
Tyler O'Brien's story was inspired by his passion for music and experience as a professional drummer and teacher. Juan Calderon told a story about his descent into drug addiction and the importance rehabilitation programs and the ALC played in his recovery.
"This is a wonderful program," he said of the ALC. "Without it, I don't know where I'd be. I'm much happier too. This place works."
Jeff Hodge talked about living on the street and said his video was a message to young kids about how that is no kind of life. "My dream is going to college and getting a career," he said. "I'm done with being on the streets. It's not what I want."
Jacky Santana, though a sign language interpreter, talked about what it was like being a deaf woman born to hearing parents and then a deaf mother to four hearing children. Her video was titled, "Learning to Communicate."
Edgar Fermaintt also talked about being stereotyped. He said he enrolled at the ALC to get his GED and a better job.
Allison Reid, HCC ALC teacher, said the students spent seven weeks this summer working on their videos. In the beginning, Wednesday was digital story night. By the end, though, students were working on their stories four nights a week. "These folks could have had a summer vacation," she said, "but they decided to do this."
This kind of project is unusual for an adult basic education program, where classes usually focus on basic math and English skills in preparation for the GED test. But, according to Aliza Ansell, ALC program coordinator, more creative instruction has become quite common at the ALC, which is located in the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center, above the Holyoke bus station on Maple Street.
"We're always trying to push the envelope of what adult basic education can be," she said.
She said this particular project was significant because it provides a forum for people in the community whose voices are often unheard.
"These stories say more than we can ever say," she said, "because these stories come from the heart."
This was the second year the ALC has conducted the digital storytelling workshop and the second time Arias has participated. After earning his GED, he completed HCC's ABE Transition to College program, then returned as a tutor.
And his story just keeps getting better.
Now 20, he is enrolled at HCC for the fall 2013 semester. He plans to major in Foundations of Health and is aiming for a career in health care.
Photos: (Left) HCC ALC students and staff and staff from WGBY attend a digital storytelling showcase at the Heritage State Park Visitors Center on Aug. 21. (Right) Neftaly Rodriguez introduces his video. (Thumbnail) JR Arias talks about being prejudged as a young student.