© — Telegram file photo
By Steve Bartlett and Garrett Barry
Juanita Somerton couldn’t contain herself after learning her adult basic education program was off the budgetary chopping block.
“When they told us it was going to be there, I actually screamed and I started crying,” she says. “And I went over and hugged the girl that told us and I said, ‘My God, you just gave me my life back.’ I smiled the rest of the day. I went home and I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Somerton, who suffers from depression, is one of two dozen students enrolled in an ABE program for students with mental illnesses.
It’s run by the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) out of a centre on Waterford Bridge Road.
In the 2013 budget, the government announced the college would no longer deliver ABE.
That had Somerton and her classmates worrying about the program’s future — as well as their own.
They lobbied hard to keep it open through protests, petitions and media interviews.
Those efforts appear to have paid off. Earlier this week, a government official told them the unique program would still be offered.
For Somerton, the news lifted the weight of the world off her shoulders.
The program has changed her life, building confidence and shining a light through the darkness of anxiety and depression.
“This (program) is everything to me,” Somerton says. “I really felt like there’s going to be nothing to me, I’m not going to get to finish my school. ... Other people are going to put that stigma back on me. And I’m not going to have a reason to live anymore.”
Classmate Jacob King, who has severe anxiety disorder and chronic depression, was also relieved by the reprieve.
“I am absolutely pleased,” he says.
New Democrat Gerry Rogers pressed the premier and other ministers on behalf of the Waterford ABE students.
She thinks maintaining the class was a necessary decision.
“It’s a crucial program and without using superlatives and exaggeration, it was the students. Many of them said, ‘This saved my life.’ And there are graduates who have said the same thing,” Rogers says.
Joan Shea, minister for Advanced Education and Skills, was unavailable for an interview Friday.
Her spokesman confirmed students at the Waterford program were told “they would receive the same ABE instruction as they do now at the same location.”
While it will continue at the Waterford site, there are still some questions about how the program will be carried out.
“How they will deal with the ABE instructors is not entirely clear,” Rogers says. “They said they were looking at possibly putting it out to tender and will do a request for proposals for that piece of it. I feel that is unfortunate, but we’ll see how that proceeds.”
While thrilled their program will remain, Somerton, King and their schoolmates are now concerned about the fate of their instructors.
Somerton believes it’s important for them to keep the same teachers running the program.
She says they’re specifically experienced with the needs of program participants. Personally, she notes, they’ve helped her learn and made her confidence soar.
“I believe I can do anything because they tell me that, and I get the good marks, and I believe I can go out and be anything I want to be,” she says, later adding, “This is a lifesaving program, it really is.”