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2012 June 25 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Illinois Woman Plugs Away to Earn GED, Receives Award from State

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — One section at a time and for nearly four years, Debra Bradford has been determined to earn her general equivalency degree.

Not bad for a woman who was hooked on drugs and alcohol, was shot in the head and suffered severe brain damage two decades ago, and has battled mental and physical health demons.

AP Photo/The Quincy Herald-Whig, Phil Carlson

Debra Bradford, left, studies math with tutor Gena Awerkamp in the Kincherff Center in Quincy, Ill. Bradford, 52, is a John Wood Community College literacy student who was recently honored with the State Library Literacy Office Spotlight on Achievement Award.

Bradford, 52, is a John Wood Community College literacy student who was recently honored with the State Library Literacy Office Spotlight on Achievement Award. She was one of 10 recipients out of 300 nominations.

“Overwhelming,” is how the Quincy woman describes getting the award. “This time, it’s for doing the right things and then getting all of the attention.”

Bradford says she had alcoholic parents who died when she was 15. She was a slow learner but stayed in school for as long as possible until she became too old to attend.

She worked in restaurants but couldn’t better herself because of a lack of reading ability. She managed to earn money by painting murals and signs, but her life began spiraling out of control because of substance abuse issues.

Bradford says she was addicted to meth, cocaine and alcohol. Living in Houston, she was in an abusive relationship in 1991 when she says a friend of her boyfriend shot her in the back of the head.

“I woke up in a hospital in Tampa, Florida,” she says. “I have no idea how long I was in there. And I simply got up and walked out.”

Bradford suffered a serious brain injury and she still has issues with memory, so the details of those long ago days are a bit fuzzy. She says others have told her about what was going on in her life.

But she never drank or took drugs again after the shooting, thanks to help from Alcoholics Anonymous and the will to give up her previous life.

She was living in Arkansas in 2002 when she met a woman online and decided to move to Quincy. She got her medical and mental conditions under control with medication, and slowly realized she could start learning again.

Bradford hooked up nearly four years ago with Gena Awerkamp, a volunteer literacy tutor at JWCC’s Kinscherff Adult Education and Learning Center. There are five basic areas of study to pass the GED, and Bradford is working on the language arts and math portions of the test.

“She’s amazing,” Awerkamp said. “She just keeps plugging along and she never gives up. She never misses class unless she is ill, and she doesn’t throw up her hands and say, ‘I’m not going to study anymore today.’”

Awerkamp says Bradford’s amazing spirit and attitude help keep her going.

“She is the first person I started with, and I’ve never had one quite like her,” Awerkamp says.

Bradford recently took the language arts portion of the test and failed by a mere 2 points.

“It doesn’t get her down,” Awerkamp says.

Bradford is on disability and lives just a few blocks from the Kinscherff Center. She is now able to do some tutoring on her own and wants to continue to help others.

“Never give up on yourself,” she says.

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