Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Valarie Ashley

Giving adults tools for better lives.

By: Leslie Milk

When Valarie Ashley came to Washington to earn a PhD in clinical psychology at George Washington University in 1981, she needed a job to pay the bills. She began working with adults with developmental disabilities at Goodwill Industries—and the job soon became more meaningful than her studies. Ashley didn’t finish her doctorate, but she’s been in classrooms ever since, helping adults get the education they need to make better lives for themselves and their families.

As executive director of Southeast Ministry, Ashley serves more than 600 people, primarily residents of DC wards 7 and 8—the city’s poorest sections. Many of her clients are ex-offenders, people referred by the criminal-justice system, or the chronically unemployed who go to Southeast Ministry for classes and coaching to prepare for the job market. The average student comes in reading at a fifth-grade level and doing third-grade math.

One client had spent ten years in prison and six months at a halfway house when he went to Southeast Ministry for job-readiness and GED classes. When he first sat in front of a computer, he was convinced he couldn’t master the strange machine. Forty-five minutes into the class, the teacher told students to take a break. The man refused. “I’ve gone computer-crazy,” he said.

Says Ashley: “So often people want things, but their fears keep them from moving forward.”

That client now works full-time as an apartment maintenance man. He passed the practice exam and will soon take the test for his high-school-equivalency certificate.

“I don’t think a day passes that I don’t get a piece of good news,” Ashley says. “Somebody got a GED. Somebody made it to class every day for a whole week. The joys may be small, but they are joys nonetheless.”

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