GERALD — In a town where the tallest building is the feed mill and the railroad tracks are dormant, getting ahead often means getting away to places such as Union, Sullivan and Washington for work. The hardware store, which just closed, is the latest business to shutter.
One downtown outfit that is still chugging along, though, is Gerald Community Outreach, a tin-roofed building where the assistance coordinator, Maria Killian, holds an influential volunteer position.
Killian, 65, is well-known around Franklin County for an unconventional method of motivating high school dropouts to earn GED diplomas. She's armed with the power to pay rent and utility bills. Her desk is flanked by shelves of free food.
A sign puts her philosophy of charity in plain view: "When you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose to be kind."
Anybody is welcome to groceries on their first visit to the pantry. But with Killian's peculiar sense of kindness, don't bother coming back without a budget journal that documents income and expenses. And you had better not include cable bills.
It's her hardline approach on education that is most notable. Clients without a high school diploma must be enrolled in a GED program if they want more assistance, which can take discipline to enforce as people come in who need money as much as they need an education.
There are few excuses. Much to her credit, GED classes are now offered day and night each week, across the railroad tracks at Calvary New Life Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church. She'll cover the bill for day care if somebody needs it.
"I am being kind by helping them get on their feet," she said. "By just giving things to them is keeping them in poverty and not helping at all."
There are few alternatives. Gerald Community Outreach, which has a $40,000 annual budget, is supported by the United Way and a dozen churches that pool resources so services aren't duplicated, or perhaps exploited.
In other words, most handouts in this town of 1,300 residents go through Killian.
"I am not the village idiot. I've done this too long," she said. "I can't give you the collection plate if you aren't doing the best you can."
Killian realized the power of a GED diploma after seeing what one did for Betty Eye, a high school dropout, and other teenagers Killian mentored in a young entrepreneurs program.
"I was on a really hard path to nowhere," said Eye, who earned a GED diploma in 2008 and wants to be a teacher. "I got that GED in my hand, and I felt empowered. It really changed my life. I didn't think it would. I thought I am going to just do this and get it over with. I immediately started working at getting into college and figuring out how to pay for it."
Killian helped persuade GED administrators at East Central College to expand services to Gerald. Since 2008, she said about 50 of her referrals earned GED certificates, including a dozen women who became nurses. Men, who often want to be mechanics, are encouraged to attend Linn State Technical College.
The GED class has the feel of a one-room school house. Each student is at a different level. Some students are walk-ins, others were referred by family services, the court system or probation and parole. Students in Gerald are supposed to attend four hours of class per week as they prepare for the final five-part exam.
"Some tread water, but it's up to us to encourage them and explain what benefit this is going to be for them," said evening instructor Don Boettcher, 79. Even if the only incentive is to get food, he said, "if they are really, really low, and not encouraged internally, they are going to have a problem."
Chantis Scott, 25, and her fiancé, A.J. Dotson, 26, recently started the program after a visit with Killian. They got the typical spiel about helping themselves to get help.
"I think she has a point," said Scott, stepping out in the hall for a break from class last week. She dropped out of the 10th grade. She got tired of people picking on her because she has a learning disability.
"This is something we've been wanting to do — to make a better living for ourselves and our kids," said Scott, who earns $8 an hour as a home-care aide and wants to be a nurse.
Dotson, her fiancé, dropped out of school in the sixth grade to log cedar with his mother near Steelville. He has since dabbled in a few GED programs, including one inside a Booneville prison. He likes the Gerald program better.
"They actually try to help you get your GED," he said. "Most of the other places, they just throw the work at you and tell you to do it yourself."
He admits, though, "If you really don't want it yourself, you are not going to succeed."
Killian is optimistic about people like Dotson.
"He's getting positive reinforcement where everybody said he couldn't do anything before," she said. "Those are the ones that take off like a light and they go lickety-split through it."
Karen Wallensak, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services in St. Louis, said Killian's technique is unique but not surprising. "Most agencies don't want to become ATMs," she said.
Killian married a man she grew up with. She did a stint as a mail carrier. When she was 41, with five children, she finished an associate's degree at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. She has nine grandchildren. She used to be in charge of food service at the old Charless Home in St. Louis, formerly called the "Home of the Friendless."
As a representative from one of the dozen churches involved with the creation of Gerald Community Outreach in 2003, she was asked to take on the assistance coordinator position.
"I've been doing this for so long, I've decided I was going to quit 100 times," she said. "If I'm not making a difference, I'm wasting my time, too, and energy, and money, and it's just not right."
She tries to understand the root of what brings clients to her office. She tries to unearth forgotten dreams. She tries to set in place a list of deadlines and goals, which often starts with earning a GED certificate.
"Baby steps," she said.
Sometimes it's hard to see progress.
The toughest case she has dealt with involves a self-described ruffian whose last name, Emanuel, means "God with us" in Hebrew.
Isiah Emanuel, 20, didn't like it when he found out he had to pursue a GED diploma.
"I didn't think she had the right to make me do things like that," he said. "No other place does that. They just say give me your (Social Security) card, proof of address and proof of income."
Emanuel had been dropped from the GED program several times over the last four years. He was back again recently. But Killian had to assure a GED administrator that Emanuel learned multiplication tables to show he was serious this time.
"I've burned my bridges," he said. "A lot of people don't think I can make it."
Emanuel has only seen his father, who is in prison, a few times. He dropped out of high school during his junior year. He said he doesn't like crowds. He said people often want to fight him because of his large size.
But his mood has improved since he got back on medication. He feels the need to provide for his wife and two children. Their third child, Winter Sky, was due any day.
"I've grown up a lot," he said. "I kind of have to."
Emanuel is on track to test Killian's core philosophy about being kind.
He and his family have only space heaters at home. If Killian springs for a minimum fill, the gas company will re-install a propane tank.
But Emanuel hasn't been making it to class much. He has had good excuses, though. His grandfather was ill. His car broke down. Temporary jobs came through cutting cedar, fixing a truck and working at a charcoal plant.
He said he wanted to take the final GED exam soon.
"Oh, yeah," he said, "I am getting it this time."
Killian and GED instructors and administrators will cheer if that ever happens. They would like him to speak at graduation.
But Emanuel has forgotten the multiplication tables already. He needed to work on fractions and grammar. And he recently forgot his budget journal at Killian's downtown office at Gerald Community Outreach.
It was getting cold outside, and he was going to need the propane.
Killian hasn't given up on him. She salivates at any baby steps toward ending the cycle of poverty.
"If we can teach his kids something different," she said, "then we win."