Kayleigh Grimes

“I’d rather have options.”

Self-reliant adult-ed grad makes her own way at an early age.


Kayleigh Grimes finished her first semester of college recently. At age 16. Not bad for someone who didn’t finish high school.

“The day I had my accident I was already talking to them about homeschool,” she says of her withdrawal meeting with the high school she attended, soon after a car wreck that kept her out of classes for three months—the lethal blow to her high-school career. “I have really bad depression and anxiety, and so it’s like a constant battle.”

That battle, and others—growing up in several different towns, falling behind in school due to a horrific accident, working full-time at a young age—might have left anyone else dejected. Kayleigh only became more determined, more self-reliant. “I don’t think about anybody else when I see my future, because everybody leaves at one point in your life,” she says. While this might seem pessimistic, especially for a teenager, Kayleigh’s situation is different, and therefore her approach is different. She has had to figure out a lot on her own, through life experience.

Take her experience in earning her high-school-equivalency diploma through Northeast Mississippi Community College. “It [enrolling in the program] wasn’t that bad because I had a friend doing it with me. It was something we both agreed to do. Then after two days she split,” Kayleigh says, laughing.

Left on her own, Kayleigh trudged on, despite her challenges. According to Deanne Droke, one of Kayleigh’s instructors, “Kayleigh didn’t attend regular classes because of how much she had to work, but when she came in the afternoons and evenings, she was always ready to work. She always had a smile on her face no matter what stresses were going on in her life. She was a treasure.”

Once Kayleigh got started, the pieces fell into place rather quickly. She completed the short work-skills curriculum Smart Start, blazed through the subject-matter test preparation, aced the HiSET (the equivalent of the GED test in Mississippi), and set her sights on college (again, at age sixteen). Balancing her work and school schedule with her specific housing challenges says Droke, “She stayed with whoever let her lay her head down at their home.”

“The people I lived with liked to stay out and do stuff. And then there was me, just wanting to go home and go to bed—and at the same time, you know, you only live once.” Kayleigh moved forward, working with Northeast’s adult education and college-faculty advising staff to enroll in college. “College is something I’ve always wanted to experience,” she says, “because I’ve never wanted to be stuck in this town—or state, for that matter. I know how to get out without a college degree, but I’d rather have options.”

Her first semester behind her, now awaiting the start of her second, still working full-time, she looks forward to her future while dealing with the challenge of her busy life—any way she can. “Trying to keep my grades up on top of the stress and working full-time—it gets difficult to juggle,” she says. “I think the main thing [that keeps me going] is…I didn’t know Northeast had a Starbucks!”

Besides caffeine and sheer grit, Kayleigh relies on another time-honored method for navigating life. “I write all the time. I’m really bad at poetry, but I still attempt it,” she says. “Sometimes I just write down my thoughts.”

What inspires her? “I like poetry and I like quotes. That’s why everybody’s on Tik Tok now and I’m still on Pinterest from like 3 years ago.”

“When I was younger,” she says (again: sixteen), “I tried to write a book. I wrote half of it, and then found something else to spend my time on.” Understandable; she was in “probably the ninth grade”.

And what does she write now, at the ripe old age of barely seventeen? “I normally write fiction, fantasy—where I would like to see myself. With hardships that you must get through. Nothing like Cinderella.”


Through all the moving around, getting knocked down, getting back up; feeling her way through her young, prematurely mature life, Kayleigh keeps her perspective. She knows what she wants and needs, what she plans for her future. “I want to have the kind of money that my family never had—to be financially stable,” she says, though that’s not all that success means to her. “It means you get a better life than you had when you were younger, and you get to a point in your life where you say, ‘OK, I’m fine with living like this—not moving around all the time; being somewhere that you want to be that makes you happy; not having to think about, ‘Well, what am I gonna do tomorrow?’”

It sounds cliche to say that she lives for today. But Kayleigh seems to know that that’s the only day anyone is ever assured of. And the only time anyone can learn anything. She learns and grows, now, for a better future. That is something anyone, of any age, can learn from.

Osagie “Michael” Momoh

When Osagie “Michael” Momoh arrived in the United States in 2017, he knew he wanted to further his education. In Nigeria, Africa, he had completed an Associate’s degree in Business Management.  However, that was not beneficial for him in America.  He began looking online at schooling options only to find out that he would need a High School Equivalency (HSE).  That’s when Michael contacted East Mississippi Community College’s Adult Education Program. Although he worked a full-time job, the Launch Pad’s flexible classes allowed him the opportunity to continue working while pursuing his HSE.  In December 2020, Michael not only completed his HSE diploma, but he also completed the Smart Start Curriculum, a job readiness component, and earned a Silver on the ACT-WorkKeys® National Career Readiness Certificate.  For Michael, obtaining his HSE and enrolling in EMCC’s Computer Networking Program in spring 2021 was a dream come true.

Michael has completed two full semesters in the computer networking program, all while maintaining a full-time job.

Michael has previously stated, “having to start over with my education was a challenge. Enrolling in the Launch Pad was a great experience for me as I had been out of school for a long time.  My thought was that I would only focus on getting my HSE, but taking the Smart Start class, earning my WorkKeys®, and enrolling in a post-secondary program has helped me prepare for a career and provide for my family.”

Michael was recognized in October 2021 by 2nd Chance MS for his academic success.

Candice Hammond

Candice Hammond’s life story is similar to many Jackson County Drug Court participants; however, what sets her apart is her determination and commitment to turning her life around. Candice dropped out of school in the 8th grade and soon turned to drugs in the face of obstacles and adversity. “I thought this was my path in life. I was in this cycle of addiction, and knew that eventually, this choice would lead to my death.” The opportunity to participate in the Jackson County Drug Court system changed her path and gave her the second chance she needed to turn her life around.

Candice was referred to the Adult Education program at the Pascagoula Adult Learning Center through the Jackson County Drug Court and enrolled in our High School Equivalency program in September of 2019. Initially, her lack of confidence and fear of failure hindered her progress; however, Candice soon realized that failure was not an option! Candice is quick to credit the support of her family, especially her mother; a tough Circuit Court Judge who pushed her to earn her diploma and workforce credentials; the caseworkers and support counselors of the 19th Circuit Court District; the faculty and staff of the Pascagoula Adult Learning Center; and the support and words of encouragement offered by her fellow drug court participants for her success. “I could not have finished this program without the support of individuals who believed in me, pushed me to my limits, offered words of encouragement, and continue to support me.” Through hard work, perseverance, and determination Candice earned her High School Equivalency Diploma in March 2021. Candice also enrolled in our workforce and employability classes and earned both an MS Smart Start Workforce Credential and a National Career Readiness Credential, Silver Level in 2021. While attending the Jackson County Reentry Job Fair in April 2021, Candice successfully gained employment at one of the local casinos.

Candice’s story of accomplishment can serve as an example for all Opioid Grant participants. Her life journey continues with a newfound confidence that there are better days ahead and the knowledge that she has acquired the skills she needs to be a productive member of the Jackson County community.

Jamie Avila

Jaime Avila dropped out of school in the 10th grade — not because of discipline issues, failing grades, or lack of ambition. He did it for his family.

“Being Hispanic here at the time was really difficult for my parents; they didn’t speak very good English,” he says. “There were a lot of furniture companies at the time and I was hearing about people making good money…I saw that my dad was struggling at work, putting all those hours in, so I just decided to go ahead and jump to it.”

Foregoing high school and his goal of following in a cousin’s footsteps to the military, Jaime went to work building furniture, sacrificing his dreams of the future to the demands of the present. A few years later, he decided to enroll in Northeast Mississippi Community College’s Adult Education program to earn a high-school-equivalency diploma. His full-time job was a major obstacle. “I would get off really late, and it was always a struggle to get off work and run up here [to the classroom],” he says. “It was very difficult asking permission to get off work early. Then work slowed down and I couldn’t really ask for the time off because they really needed people to be there. That was always the big challenge.”

This led to a piecemeal approach; he came to class when he could. It took a few years, but he never gave up. He got his diploma, and it was worth all the trouble. “It helped me look at life differently,” he says. “There is a lot more opportunity for better jobs. Before I finished the HiSET [exam] and got my diploma, I really felt like I was stuck. Now I hear about all these opportunities. And better pay. A lot better pay. That’s what’s really motivated me.”

Fresh off his success in earning his diploma, Jaime set his sights higher. Working with Northeast’s adult-ed advising staff, he decided to pursue a career as an electrician. “I’ve done a couple of construction jobs in the past, and it always caught my attention, how everything works,” he says. “I just find it amazing how a simple wire lights up a whole building.”

He began his college career during the summer, taking College Algebra and English Composition I. Tina Gambill was his English Comp instructor. “Jaime attended English Composition I under my instruction during June and July,” she says. “Even though this was a summer course, he was present for every class meeting, which I believe says so much about his dedication and perseverance. I know there were a few times when he felt discouraged for various reasons, but he was a hard worker and never complained. I was so proud to see him succeed in this course, and I am sure his attitude will lead to more successes.”

A native-born Californian who has spoken English all his life, Jaime felt confident going into English Comp. Algebra was a different story.

“I kind of restricted myself before I started [the algebra class], because I thought, ‘This is going to be so difficult.’ That was my biggest challenge throughout high school — math,” he says. “But once I got to it, [I realized that] if you really want it, you will be able to do it. The teacher was awesome, I understood everything she was talking about, and I was really surprised with my final grade. If you really pay attention and do the work, there is no challenge.” (Neuroscience supports this notion; attention is vital for adults to trigger the brain changes necessary for learning.) His algebra instructor, Bonnie Wanner, concurs that he earned his grade by learning from the past. “He knew that the mistakes he had made in his education in the past were not going to hinder him this time,” she says. “He was dedicated to succeeding this time.”

“I would love,” she says, “to have an entire classroom of Jaimes.”

But that was summer. The time commitment for his classes amounted to only a couple of hours a day, allowing him to continue working full-time. Then came the fall semester, and a full schedule, and the return of Jaime’s tug-of-war between work and school, present needs, and future ambition. This time, with the help of his own family, the future won out.

He talked to his employer about reducing his hours to allow him to attend classes, but “they couldn’t work with my schedule,” he says. “I got home and talked to my wife, and I said, ‘Either I do this now and get better, or I get stuck in the same situation where I have always been.’ And she said, ‘It’s going to be a struggle, but we can make it.’”

Jaime is a college freshman now with a full class load — studying hard, staying focused, and, as always, taking care of his family. But now in a different way. “It [attending college] is a good example for my [10-year-old] son because he’s starting to notice everything. I tell him how awesome college is, and he’s actually getting more focused. When I get home, I talk to him, and he asks, ‘How was school today? What did you do?’ He’s excited about going to school.”

As a younger man, Jaime sacrificed his dream to take care of his family: first his parents, then his wife and children. Now, with their support, he is pursuing a different dream, and perhaps an even better one — electricians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn $56,900 a year on average, with a job outlook that is much higher than the average for all positions.

His advice for anyone considering doing what he has done? “It’s never too late. If you want to do it, now is the time to do it. You can go to your job every day and do what you have to do, or you can do something that you love and get paid better.”


Christy Sanders

Christy Sanders seeks to inspire

The first class Christy Sanders’ attended in her adult education program changed her life. Before attending her class, Sanders was hesitant and a little embarrassed about enrolling in the program.

“I was nervous. I was embarrassed. I was so many things,” Sanders says reflecting on the moments before her course, “But I just said, ‘Hey, I’m going.’”

Sanders says that her embarrassment stemmed from “just going back to school” and feeling older than her classmates. But that changed.

Sanders was comforted by “seeing people I hadn’t seen for a while” in that pivotal first class.  “We ended up coming back to school together,” Sanders says.

Her newfound comfort and support, combined with the encouraging staff at Northeast Mississippi Community College (NMCC) helped motivate her to continue her education.

“[The program] gave me a few good teachers,” Sanders says of Cole and her colleagues. “Y’all believed in us. You pushed us. Even when I said, ‘I can’t do this’, y’all would come back and say, ‘Yes, you can do this.’ Y’all give us all of you. I mean, look at me! So I think y’all have done a great job.”

Sanders’ formal education took a turn in high school. She withdrew from her coursework in the ninth grade to get a head start on her career. She became a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) at a local nursing home and worked there for 14 years.

“I just got off track,” Sanders says.

Sanders soon prioritized furthering her education and began working on her high-school-equivalency diploma. She attended night classes after working all day. But her motivation would not be deterred. She even helped motivate her fellow classmates.

“Christy was such a determined student,” Sanders’ instructor, Shanna Cole, says, “She worked very hard and set high expectations for herself. She was so encouraging to her fellow classmates and always pushed them to give their best.”

After years of hard work, Sanders finally earned her diploma. She then went on to pursue a degree in social work. Currently, Sanders is taking English Composition and College Algebra at Northeast and will enroll full-time this fall.

She has already seen a financial difference from obtaining her diploma. “I was working full-time; now I’m working part-time, and I might have to do that for a while,” she says. “Right now, I can tell a financial difference, but I just say, ‘It’ll get greater later.’”

Sanders is driven by helping others, and although she acknowledges the changes, she may have to make transitioning into her new career, she embraces the challenge.

“Once you get to what you are striving for, all the sacrifices you made will be well worth it,” she says, summing up her approach. “It’s going to be stressful, going from a CNA to a social worker, but at the same time, it’s going to be worth it to face the challenges and build my career. I want to give back in some form, and just be a positive influence in someone else’s life besides my own.”

“In my family,” she goes on, “we have a lot of people who work in the medical field. As a child, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do; when I started working as a CNA, it gave me a vision. Seeing people with no voice, who may or may not have anyone visit them, as a social worker, that’s what you’re supposed to be there for: to give.”

Sanders has this to say to anyone considering furthering their education:

“Go for it. You can do it. I did it. You can do it, too.”

Jalisia Estes

Finding the Keys to Success

Jalisa Estes drove by the adult education classroom at Northeast Mississippi Community College (NMCC) for 13 years before she made the decision to continue her education by working on her high-school-equivalency diploma.

There were reasons she had put it off for so long: kids, work, life. But underneath it all was a prevailing negative belief:

“I just didn’t see myself as smart,” she says.

Estes withdrew from high school at the age of seventeen due to unforeseen circumstances and to avoid being held back another year. She also had low self-esteem and grappled with a lack of motivation.

“I just wasn’t motivated,” she says. “My best courses were English and art. Anything outside of that, I was just bored with it.”

But once Estes decided she wanted to obtain her diploma, she did so quickly.

“My teachers kept me motivated. They inspired me to go beyond what I thought I was capable of.”

After graduating, Estes spoke with College and Career Navigator, Charlie Smart, for guidance on her next steps.

“She liked technology,” says Smart. “She was working as an online administrator for three different companies, building websites and managing their social media accounts. These were jobs she just went for, and she got them—without a high-school diploma. She taught herself to code, for goodness sake! The answer was obvious.”

Smart told her about the two-year degree in Information Systems Technology at Northeast, which offers a pathway in iOS app development.

“I had taught myself a lot for website development,” Estes says. “App development seemed like the next step.”

Cutting-edge work such as app development and virtual reality is not without its difficulties—such as learning different coding languages. How did she deal with such challenges?

“Practice,” Estes says, “If you don’t practice it, you’re never going to learn it. I’m just constantly trying to put more into my brain.”

Estes feels as if she has found the perfect path for herself.

“Everything in that program is a puzzle, and I love puzzles!” she says.

And as an added bonus, her newfound career path and skill set have led her to more profits and financial freedoms.

“I have never been on a vacation. My husband has never been on a vacation,” Estes says. “We try to do things for our children that we weren’t able to do as kids, but it’s hard. That’s going to change. The pay for the work I’m going to be doing is almost four times our current household income. I’m going to be able to enjoy my time with my family and do things with my children that I never got to do growing up.”

Estes says her success has four elements.

“Family, love, respect, knowledge–those are the keys to success,” she says.

Estes is living proof that with the right motivations, support, and mindset, students can accomplish more than they ever thought possible. And make life better—for themselves and their families.

Shareka Judon

An NEMCC Adult Education student perseveres—for all the right reasons.

Shareka Judon was determined to complete her high-school-equivalency diploma to help support her four children.

“Working full-time–and still being a mother.” This is how she describes the challenges she faced in completing her diploma through Northeast Mississippi Community College.

How was she able to overcome these challenges?

“I just put my mind to it,” she says. “There were a lot of late nights, falling asleep with the book in my hand. But I knew I had four babies at home watching me. Especially my girls who were older. They could understand.”

What they understood was, in part, that Shareka—who withdrew from high school in the 11th grade after learning she was pregnant with her oldest daughter—was struggling. They were watching her juggle a couple of important and all-consuming responsibilities.

First, there was the responsibility of motherhood. Shareka smiles more than most people, especially when discussing her children. While she is being interviewed, motherhood is the thing she mentions second-most often.

And not just being there for her kids, as any mother does. But caring for them, in ways most of us don’t have to worry about. That oldest daughter has had four open-heart surgeries, beginning at two months old. The youngest child, her son, is severely autistic. Shareka was unable to attend class in the first few weeks, due to frequent trips to LeBonheur Children’s Hospital. All the while, Shareka managed a full-time job.

Shareka pursued her diploma with Northeast while working full-time as an assistant manager in a retail store. Not long after she earned her diploma, she had to leave her job. Her son had started school, which proved to be overwhelming for him.

“There were lots of days when he went to school and had a meltdown, and I had to go get him,” she says. Work became impossible.

“She had some real challenges juggling everything,” one of her teachers, Shawn Davis, concurs. “She went back and forth from day class to night class. I know it was hard for her.”

Again, motherhood is the thing she mentions second-most often while being interviewed. The thing she mentions most often is not giving up. And that’s what her children really noticed, what they really understood.

“I didn’t want them to say, ‘Well, mama didn’t stay in school, so we don’t care if we do,’” she says. “I wanted to be a good example for them, to let them know to never give up. Keep trying. Success means putting your mind to it, being determined about it, and completing what you started.”

“I see myself (in the future) in a doctor’s office, being successful at something I really love to do.” She wants to learn more about clinical care, she says, “for my daughter and my son. I want to know what I can do to help them.” And for the patients and their families, who will no doubt benefit from her compassion, borne of her own experiences. She has been there. She still is.

Shareka will begin working toward her degree this summer and is determined to obtain her degree.

“I think,” Davis says, “she’ll be able to do whatever she puts her mind to.” And the lives of her patients will be much richer for it.

Gage Johnson

Discipline as the Key to Success

Gage Johnson is busy. His day starts at 4 in the morning. He gets up to teach CrossFit and Boot Camp classes at his gym, before speeding off to attend his college classes. After class, he goes to work and doesn’t make it home until 9 in the evening. It’s usually around midnight when he finally gets to lie down. And the next day, his routine starts all over again. And he’s only 17.

“I’ve been working out consistently since I was 12,” Johnson said. “My parents always taught me that if you want to get stuff done, you’ve just got to do it and be disciplined with it. I knew if I were lazy, it would never happen.”

Born in Albion, IN, Gage moved around with his family, first to Evansville, IN, then Texas, then to Corinth, MS, at age 15. At age 16, he enrolled in Northeast Mississippi Community College’s Adult Education program. Having been homeschooled since 4th grade, he had developed a knack for self-reliance which served him well in the program.

He also had a knack for achievement had was accepted into the Gateway and MIBEST training programs, earned a platinum score on the Career Readiness Certificate (the highest possible score), and obtained high scores on his high-school-equivalency exam.

“He was always a top-notch student in my class,” Deanne Droke, Gateway Career Specialist and Smart Start Instructor, said. “He is the most respectful and mature 16-year-old I have ever had in my class, or met, for that matter.”

How did he achieve so much?

“I didn’t want to get the minimum,” Gage said of his achievements. “I wanted to do better because I knew I could. Sometimes your school work gets boring, but you know you have to get it done to finish what you want to achieve. If there’s something you don’t want to do [to succeed], you say, ‘Well, I have to do this if I want to achieve my goal.’”

Gage found NEMCC’s program to be a good complement to his intense internal motivation.

“If I didn’t have them [the adult ed staff] I wouldn’t have known what I was supposed to do. Every time I had a question, it got answered. If I asked for help, I got it.”

So, what’s next for Gage?

Gage plans on completing his college degree in Criminal Justice, then pursuing a career in law enforcement, first with the highway patrol, then federal law enforcement. He doesn’t want to stop achieving.

“I think accomplishing your goals is (the definition of) success.” Gage says, “It’s important when you finish a big goal to set another one. You don’t want to just stay in the same spot.”

Some students merely learn. Students such as Gage also teach by setting an inspiring example for others, and by achieving and accomplishing goals, over and over again.

Reanna Stasney

Making a Pathway to Success

Although Reanna was nervous about pursuing higher education, she was focused on obtaining her HSE and making a pathway for herself to pursue career advancement opportunities.

Reanna Stasney had never attended public school before enrolling in the NEMCC Adult Education program, but she had worked on cars. Being new to Northeast Mississippi, Stasney and her mother were extremely excited to hear about the programs offered at NEMCC.

“This was an opportunity that I could not pass up,” said Stasney.

Before completing Smart Start, she was enrolled in the WIOA Gateway Youth Program. Stasney earned essential job skills, the NCRC, resume-writing and communication skills, and much more through the Gateway program.

Because of Stasney’s hard work and dedication, she was recommended to attend the MIBEST program by her instructors, Gateway Career Specialist, and Transitions Specialist. She was accepted into MIBEST, and has taken full advantage of the program’s benefits. She earned her HSE in December 2019 and is now a full-time student at NEMCC where she majors in Auto Mechanics.

Stasney continues to work part-time while attending college to pursue her dream of becoming a mechanic. After earning her Automotive degree, she hopes to get a job working on older model vehicles.

“I am so glad that we moved to Corinth and that I walked into the NEMCC adult ed office in the fall of 2019,” says Stasney. “By enrolling at Northeast, I was able to pursue my education and career.”

Stasney is marrying her fiancé, who is also majoring in Automotive Mechanics, in the fall of 2021. They plan to pursue a career together and open their own business one day. With the dedication she has displayed thus far, working hard and staying focused through numerous obstacles, she is bound for success.

Mariano Arellano

Originally published by Jones College News and Events

ELLISVILLE – Most know Mariano Arellano in Hattiesburg as the owner of La Fiesta Brava asking on TV, “How about lunch?” Now the 54-year-old is asking, “How about a career?” After serving thousands over the last 26 years, the impact of COVID-19 forced Arellano to sell his restaurant. With more people staying home, paying the bills became overwhelming.

“I never expected to close my business like I did. I was behind in payments, and I didn’t want to put my house at risk,” said Arellano. “I spent half of my life in the restaurant business and now I feel like I lost a member of my family. I feel like I lost everything. I was very depressed.”

But before the doors closed permanently, a customer suggested Arellano should explore some options through Jones College’s Workforce College. Building things always interested the former restauranteur, so after a few phone calls, he was signed up for the welding program.

“When I got to Jones and started taking welding classes and meeting all the employees here, it seemed like every person opened a different door for me. They really helped me get out of my sadness, my depression. Now, I feel like I’m going in the right direction, thanks to everyone because I don’t know if I would have made it without them,” said Arellano.

While learning a new trade through Workforce College, welding instructor, Tracy Warden inspired Arellano to explore even more options. Arellano earned his High School diploma when he lived in Mexico in 1981, but he knew he would need his American High School Equivalency to continue his education here. In one month, Arellano earned his HSE and the Workforce Welding & Heavy Equipment Certificates. He also plans to begin classes in the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration program in August.

“My life has changed 360 degrees,” said Arellano. “In the restaurant business, it seems like there is always equipment in need of repair. I often did some troubleshooting before calling a repairman. I always wanted to do something else, mechanical or build something. Now, it’s become my new career.”

Arellano is currently working at Smith Welding in Ellisville, as part of the crew building a two-story building structure. He also has new goals on his horizon. In fact, with his Certificate in Workforce Welding & Heavy Equipment, along with his High School Equivalency diploma from Jones College, next year, Arellano said he may open another business after he earns his associate degree in Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration. For more information about Jones College’s Workforce College, click on the link: https://www.jcjc.edu/workforce.

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