The choice was hers

Kensington native graduates from high school through the Penn Foster The Choice is Yours program despite troubled past.

Smile of success: Marisol Mas proudly displays her diploma. PHOTO COURTESY OF LINETTE KIELINSKI

By Lindsey Nolen

The afternoon of Wednesday, July 12, was one that five members of the Philadelphia community will never forget, including 19-year-old Kensington-native Marisol Mas. On this day she and her peers proved to those who had once doubted them they could overcome their troublesome past, graduate from high school through the Penn Foster The Choice is Yours program and set forth on a continued path to success.

True to its name, The Choice is Yours program through JEVS Human Services provides a choice for first-time, nonviolent felony drug offenders to engage in an opportunity to earn their high school diploma through Penn Foster in lieu of serving a prison sentence. In the case of Mas, it was after she received a drug charge one month following her 18th birthday that she was informed about the TCY program.

“I was at 14th and Sansom and started talking to someone, some type of social worker, who started telling me about the TCY program,” Mas, who grew up at Kensington and Allegheny avenues, said. “He didn’t really explain it all to me but had said it was a work program, and I needed work.”

She next asked her public defender about the program, who more thoroughly explained what it entailed and what it required. Realizing her options were limited to a judge mandating she attend a drug or alcohol program, admitting her to jail or allowing her to participate in TCY, Mas requested referral to the program.

“The first day of orientation I knew I wanted to do the program because everyone was so kind and everyone greeted us with warm smiles,” Mas said. “[TCY Program Director Nigel Bowe] explained how they could help me and how I could finish school through the program, and I knew I had to continue through it.”

Contributing to her dedication and motivation to complete the program, soon after she began classes on October 2016, she became pregnant with her daughter. Staying connected with the TCY network after discovering her pregnancy, she received notice of the many available resources available for young mothers from her case manager, Shakeeda Chisolm, while intensifying her drive to finish the education program in as little time as possible.

“The most I ever did was take 15 tests in one day,” Mas, who had her daughter during the program and was back to working on her studies two days later, said. “The program also helped me get a job at Dunkin’ Donuts through a job fair after one month of being a part of it. So, I would work 4:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., come home to lay my daughter down and then log into Penn Foster through a tablet or my cell phone.”

Describing its virtual courses as being “very easy” to navigate and complete, she officially finished the program in March as valedictorian, and now uses the story of her experience to try to persuade others in similar circumstances to participate and further their education.

“Never in my life did I think I would be where I am now,” Mas said. “Growing up I was abused and my father was incarcerated when I was 10 years old. My mom has to raise five kids by herself, so me and my brothers took to running the streets and doing illegal activities.”

She also recounted all the times throughout grade school when she never wanted to go, and would cut even on the first day of school for the year. Yet now, after having obtained her high school diploma, Mas has plans to someday go back to school in the hopes of becoming an architect. Until then, she is busy working to acquire the clearances necessary to work at a child-care facility, as she loves children.

“I’m so proud of myself, as I did not see myself doing any of these things,” Mas said. “I thought of myself as a troubled teen who didn’t like listening, and that TCY was going to be just like going to school, but it was amazing.”

She also expressed getting to this point in her life, despite her struggles, she plans on raising her daughter to believe through hard work, anything is possible.

“I’m going to tell her that whatever she puts her mind to she can do,” Mas said. “Even when she doesn’t think she can.”