Four receive high school diplomas

Published 11:19 am Wednesday, November 24, 2004

By By MARCIA STEFFENS / Cassopolis Vigilant
CASSOPOLIS - They may all wear matching uniforms, eat when told to, and have lights out, but these inmates of the Cass County Jail have a difference - inside. The four who graduated Thursday with diplomas from the Cassopolis Public Schools have all made a commitment to themselves - to change.
Making the choice to attend classes each day with teacher Helene Hoover was a step toward change.
He smiled at Valerie Benson Wallace, of Dowagiac, who has been trying to get her diploma for the last 14 years. Wallace said she got her GED 10 years ago - also while incarcerated, in Detroit.
Capt. Affriseo didn't contradict her when she said, "I was spoiled - a brat. it kept me from achieving what I could." But a few weeks ago, when she threw a fit in front of her teacher, she said, "I apologized right away."
Now Wallace said she "feels comfortable," with a feeling of peace. "Getting a diploma was topping…"
Jeff Overton of White Pigeon still faces more incarceration - in prison, but now he can enter into college programs studying psychology and law. Though he realized he couldn't ever become a lawyer now, Affriseo encouraged him to think about becoming a paralegal, something other former inmates have become quite successful at.
James Wardlow of Edwardsburg had nothing but praise for the program at the Cass jail and its teacher. "She helped me," he said. "I had a hard time with math and she walked me through it." Hoover said he was always the first one in the door and he never missed a day coming to class before going to work in the kitchen.
Though the first three graduates all could attribute drugs as leading to their being behind bars, for Gilbert Reyna of South Haven it was one New Year's Eve, turning 21 and alcohol. "I was proud to be 21 and took it too far.
He owed to never be in this situation again. "This is not the life for me. I want to get back to my family, my kid. Drinking isn't for me."
The only difference with those who succeed, he continued, "is they don't let defeats defeat them.