'Education junkie' has yearning for learning
Education has been George Kennedy's gateway to a crime-free, productive life.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- When residents of Community Corrections Association earn their General Educational Development degrees -- the equivalent of high school diplomas -- education coordinator Jack Miskell reminds them that it's a beginning point in their lives, not an end.
If those same residents need a living, breathing example of how education can transform lives, they see one daily in George P. Kennedy Jr.
"It's so much who I am now," says Kennedy, a thin, well-spoken man who says he's been clean and sober for nearly eight years. "It's not overwhelming. It's just rewarding. I think I'm an education junkie now."
As CCA's chemical dependency coordinator, Kennedy oversees drug and alcohol programming that includes assessments of clients' needs, educational and therapy classes and finding sponsors to help clients with relapse prevention.
How CCA helps
Kennedy thinks at least 90 percent of CCA's residents have substance-abuse issues or lifestyles that put them at risk, he said. He also believes the same ratio of residents wouldn't bother to obtain their GEDs if they weren't in CCA, which is where judges may send certain offenders instead of prison.
Figures by Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction show the average reading level of inmates at seventh grade. More than 85 percent of the state's inmates don't have verified high school diplomas or GEDs.
The passing rate among inmates who take the GED is 65 percent statewide; at CCA, its 80 percent over the last five years, Miskell said.
Research shows that active participation in education programs can reduce recidivism by at least 60 percent, says Richard J. Billak, CCA's chief executive officer.
Kennedy speaks from experience, whether it's about crime or education.
Kennedy, 51, was arrested 27 times in his life; convicted of felonies eight times; sent to prison twice, the first time at age 19; and sent to CCA twice.
"I was the epitome of drug and alcohol addiction, with a criminal twist to it," Kennedy said.
He didn't come from a bad home. "I had a beautiful childhood," he said, recalling his participation in Boy Scouts, sports, music lessons and church activities. He credits his graduation from the former North High School in 1973 to his mother, who was a "stickler for education," he said.
As for his past, "I just made some bad choices," Kennedy said. He began running the streets at age 13. Addiction is an illness, but, "The real virus was my thought process," he said.
Judge John M. Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court sent Kennedy to CCA for the first time in December 1997.
"I wasn't a model resident," Kennedy said, recalling how he received sanctions for inappropriate behavior and failed a few urinalysis tests.
Kennedy was released after six months and thought he was strong enough to stay sober on his own. Less than two months later, he was using drugs again, he said. When he was rearrested in October 1998, Kennedy asked to be sent back to CCA.
Once that happened, Kennedy began to set new goals for himself.
"I was tired. I really had enough," he said.
Went to YSU
In March 1999, Kennedy enrolled at Youngstown State University and finished his first quarter while he was a CCA resident. Teachers worked with him extensively and helped him to develop good study skills. He earned close to a 2.0 grade point average that first quarter, which surprised him since he hadn't considered himself college material. "My self-esteem shot through the roof," he said. The following quarter, his GPA was 2.56 and climbed from there.
Once he was released from CCA, Kennedy decided not to return to his old haunts. "Anywhere on the East Side was danger to me," he said. He began to stay at local facilities that offered drug and alcohol counseling. Later, he began to do counseling work at some of those homes.
After his mentor, Tony Blanshaw, died suddenly in December 2002, Billak offered to hire Kennedy to fill Blanshaw's job with CCA. Kennedy wavered. He was a year away from completing his bachelor's degree and enjoyed the flexibility his other job offered in terms of his school schedule.
Think of what it will mean to CCA residents if a former client returns as a counselor, Billak told Kennedy, who agreed. "My change process started in this facility," he said.
What he's accomplished
Kennedy has associate and bachelor's degrees in social work. He expects to finish his master's degree in community counseling next year at YSU. He carries a 3.66 GPA today.
Kennedy plans to enroll in a doctoral program at Kent State University. Kennedy wants to fill a void he perceives by becoming a dual-disorder counselor for people with substance abuse and mental health issues. He wants to work in greater Youngstown, where he says there are too few beds in treatment facilities for indigent men with addiction problems.
Kennedy could earn more in bigger cities, but "If I go chasing the bucks now, it would be a slap in the face to my God," he said. "Somebody has to stay here and take a stand."