Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Valarie Ashley

Giving adults tools for better lives.
Photograph by Jeff Elkins.
Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

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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