“One day, I was taking my mother to the emergency room,” she recalls, “and suddenly in the midst of all that, someone started yelling my name – ‘Mrs. Ellie! Mrs. Ellie! I just earned my culinary arts degree and I’m doing pretty well now!’ It’s times like those when it really hits me that many of the people I have helped are very grateful.”
The Fenton resident estimates that over the past 11 years, she has helped more than 400 Genesee County Jail inmates achieve their GEDs. For most, Ellie’s selfless efforts have meant a start on a better path, rather than continuing down the same dead-end road.
While it doesn’t happen perhaps as often as she would like, chance meetings with former students who have moved on to a more positive phase of their lives put all her efforts into perspective, especially considering they are also former inmates who have traded orange jumpsuits for brighter futures.
“There is a student I see at the grocery store in Linden about once a month who has been working steadily at obtaining his GED and completing his jail time,” Ellie said. “I have seen other former students at places like Wal-Mart who have told me they’re working and doing well. It’s not often that I get to see former students and I’m not allowed to reach out and contact them or connect with them on social media, but it’s great to see that I have made a difference in their lives.”
At a petite, 5-feet, 2 inches tall, the 59-year-old hardly appears like she belongs in such an environment, commanding the attention and respect of convicted criminals while attempting to give them a second chance at a high school education.
“I’m sure there are times when you can hardly see me in the classroom because I am this little woman lost in a sea of orange, but most of the time they are really thankful for what I do for them,” she says. “They are respectful and listen to what I am trying to teach and receptive to the homework and other assignments I give. I always see them as human beings who have made some mistakes. That’s all. I never judge them; I just try to help them achieve an education.”
And, more often than not, they are very appreciative after earning that life-changing certificate.
“I have found that it’s something they all do at a different pace because some inmates are really book smart, breeze through the testing and leave there ready for college, and others will take longer,” Ellie said. “At the end, many of them say ‘thank you for what you did for me’ but I am always quick to tell them that they were the ones who did it. It’s a really humbling and satisfying experience.”
She admits it’s difficult to learn that a former student’s story did not have a happy ending. She sees several each year who return to jail, but she tries to still see the positive in those situations.
“I always say that it’s a good outcome if I don’t see them on the television news having a committed a crime, but sometimes I do and I’ll see them back in the jail again,” she said. “Unfortunately, it can be a hard pattern to break, but even then, they are quick to reassure me, saying things like, ‘Don’t worry Mrs. S – I’m only here on a violation. I’m still working and doing well.’ All I can do is hope they eventually take the education I helped them with and make good use of it.”
There is another reason Ellie is well-suited to her work at the jail – the criminal justice system was also the setting of her first career.
For 20 years, the Flint native and Southwestern High School alum was a crime scene investigator for the Flint Police Department. Upon retiring, she went into teaching and landed a position with the Mount Morris School District’s adult education program. She settled into her new career and then one day was approached about working with inmates at the County jail.
“I really was not sure at first, but they made it sound like a pretty rewarding thing, so I thought why not?” she said. “It was really interesting for me because after all those years investigating crimes and gathering evidence to bring criminals to justice, I was seeing the other side of what I had done. Suddenly, it became more real and I began to like working with them to help improve their lives.”
For five days a week over the next nine years, Ellie poured herself into helping those whose lives had taken what she hoped was only a temporary wrong turn. Two years ago, she cut back her schedule at the jail to one day a week, turning her attention back to the civilian adult population. Since then, she has helped hundreds more attain their GEDs.
Ellie only recently saw the statistics regarding her work at the jail and was overwhelmed. “I knew we helped as many as 80 inmates in one year, but I never imagined the total number was more than 400,” she said. “That really did blow me away. Helping so many accomplish that makes me thankful for the opportunity and although I’m doing it only part-time now, the program has not changed. Jerry Tkach took over the classes for me Monday-Thursday and has been doing an amazing job.”
Also an avid runner who placed fifth in her age group in the 2014 Crim Festival of Races 8K, Ellie shows no signs of slowing down. Her desire to help adults of all ages and backgrounds get back on the education track is simply too strong.
“What I’ve given them, I have gotten back ten-fold,” she said. “I plan to keep going until I think I am no longer making a difference or they no longer care about what I try to do for them.”
That means that Ellie probably won’t be retiring anytime soon. ♦