Young mothers earn high school equivalency diplomas through Holyoke program

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  • Ciana Cabrera, left, of Holyoke smiles at her 5-month-old son, Kaeson Archeval, held by her sister, Ash-Lei Soto, as she is helped with her cap and gown by Care Center faculty member Hayley Murphy on Friday. A rolling caravan of Care Center faculty and board members delivered high school equivalency diplomas to graduates in Holyoke and surrounding cities on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Care Center teacher Hayley Murphy, right, helps graduate Ciana Cabrera with her cap after it fell off during a brief diploma presentation to the young mother outside her Holyoke home on Friday, June 26, 2020. Her sister, Ash-Leigh Soto, left, held Cabrera's five-month-old son, Kaeson Archival, while she received the high school equivalency diploma. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ciana Cabrera, left, of Holyoke looks over her high school equivalency diploma and the flowers she received from Care Center faculty while her sister, Ash-Lei Soto, center, held her five-month-old son, Kaeson Archival, on Friday, June 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ciana Cabrera, left, of Holyoke smiles at her five-month-old son, Kaeson Archeval, held by her sister, Ash-Lei Soto, as she dons a cap and gown to receive her diploma from the Care Center on Friday, June 26, 2020. The presentation by faculty member Hayley Murphy, center, was just one stop on a caravan to deliver diplomas to graduates in Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield on Friday. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ciana Cabrera of Holyoke holds her youngest son, Kaeson Archival, 5 months, after receiving her high school equivalency diploma from the Care Center in a special graduation caravan on Friday, June 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ciana Cabrera of Holyoke poses with her sons, Keyon, left, 4, and Kaeson, 5 months, after having her high school equivalency diploma from the Care Center delivered to her by faculty members in a special graduation caravan on Friday, June 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aliselle Sanchez of Holyoke holds her high school equivalency diploma from the Care Center after it was delivered to her in a special multi-city graduation caravan of faculty and board members on Friday, June 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/28/2020 5:47:43 PM

HOLYOKE — Aliselle Sanchez, a 22-year-old resident of Holyoke, stood in her dark purple cap and gown across the street from her apartment on Clemente Street on Friday morning with her 2-year-old son and husband by her side.

When staff at the Care Center, a social service organization in Holyoke, handed Sanchez her high school equivalency diploma for graduating from the center’s program, supporters in more than half a dozen vehicles honked their horns in celebration.

“They teach you how you can still be a mother and attend school and do what you have to do,” Sanchez said the day before her socially distanced graduation. “Just because you’re a young mother, it doesn’t stop you.”

The Care Center in Holyoke helps young mothers between the ages of 16 and 24 prepare to take the high school equivalency test (HiSET) by offering them classes ranging from poetry to drama and science that take anywhere from eight months to three years to complete before students take the test, formerly the GED, said Anne Teschner, executive director of the Care Center.

“People come in at whatever level they’re at,” she explained. “Some come to us reading at a fourth or fifth grade reading level and others at a 10th or 11th grade level. Depending on where you are in the continuum will determine how long it takes you to pass the HiSET. It’s a rigorous test. Sometimes in the public sense of the GED is that it’s somehow an easier way to graduate. It’s a really arduous test. There are five components. It’s timed. It’s stressful and it’s a hard hurdle to get over.”

A dozen young women graduated from the Care Center program after completing their HiSet exams before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Teschner said. Nine of those 12 have continued to live in western Massachusetts across communities including Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield and Westfield.

Teschner said that although the program is a requirement for young moms to receive Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance funds, many women who might start classes begrudgingly end up becoming empowered by their education.

“It truly is a big accomplishment for these women to have passed this with a kid and coming to this work having experienced school failure,” she said. “There’s a sense for many of our students of, ‘Education’s not for me. I can’t do this. Maybe I’m not bright enough to do it,’ which is of course not true. They come to understand that they are capable and smart and have a lot to offer.”

Sanchez, a former resident of Worcester who moved to Holyoke two months ago, said she appreciated how teachers in the program would work one on one with students, as well as the child care young moms received to help them focus on their education.

“They have a day care on site,” she said. “It was very beneficial for me to have a day care center on site because my son would go to day care as I was studying upstairs in my classes. It was a very good program for us. They want you to stay focused. They give you electives so that you’re having fun as well as learning.”

Sanchez left school initially due to a difficult upbringing. She and her family were constantly moving back and forth from New York to Florida. Her mother also went through a difficult divorce that impacted Sanchez and her brothers and sisters.

“Everything that I went through as a child didn’t really let me finish school, but as I got older and became a mother I wanted to be an influence for my son like my mom did,” Sanchez said.

Although a dozen students graduated from the program, classes have stopped due to the pandemic, Teschner said. One young mother who was working towards taking the HiSET was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent two weeks in quarantine with her 2-year-old child. Both the mother and child are now healthy.

Sanchez finished her HiSET exam on Dec. 23, before the pandemic changed the way people interact in their daily lives. She said other young moms seeking to attain their high school equivalency diploma have an added challenge now.

“They don’t get the experience that I got, which is spending time with the teachers. Getting to know them as well as learning with them,” she said.

Luz Quinones, a 24-year-old mother of three girls ages 2, 5 and 10, is a resident of Chicopee who after completing her HiSET started attending Holyoke Community College. She’s now in her second semester at the community college, where she is enrolled in the Foundations of Health program.

Quinones said the encouragement she received from teachers at the Care Center helped set her on the path to pursuing her associate degree. After graduating from HCC, she plans on going for her bachelor’s degree.

“No matter what I went through or the situations that happened, they just told me, ‘Whatever you need, just let us know and we’ll meet you in the middle. We want you to graduate and we want you to succeed in life.’”

For more information about the Care Center, visit

Chris Goudreau can be reached at

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