Tammy Lapierre knows what it means to work hard.
At 17, the Tillsonburg native decided to leave school and join many of her friends and family working in the area's tobacco fields where the sandy soil is well-suited to the crop.
Tammy's family has roots in agriculture and she found year-round work in the industry. When she wasn't on the farm she was taking on various factory jobs.
"That's what everybody did back then, we all went to work."
It was all back-breaking labour and Tammy, now 53, says "my bones hurt now because of it."
Unable to work and collecting disability benefits, Tammy decided to return to school to earn her Ontario Secondary School Diploma, enrolling last year in the Bridges to Success Literacy Program.
"She had taken college courses previously but never completed her Grade 12," said Sara Jamieson who works with the Grand Erie Learning Alternatives program and nominated Tammy as an Education WORKS Champion.
"She wanted to take some time to grasp the material she forgot about when she was attending high school. She was astonished by how quickly things came back to her and how much she knew."
Tammy took this knowledge to enhance her writing and math skills and apply to Grand Erie Learning Alternatives for credit courses. She completed two of them last year, earning 95% and 99%, and is currently completing her last credit course to graduate – Grade 12 College English.
Tammy says her biggest challenge was overcoming her apprehension about returning the classroom and gaining self-esteem.
"I was shy and I was ashamed. I wasn't proud that I hadn't finished high school."
Sara said Tammy has excelled, "gaining more knowledge and using it to better her marks with each course she takes.
She is the perfect example of a lifelong learner. She has never given up on her dreams."
Tammy had an internship position with Bridges to Success where she had on-the-job training as an administrative assistant. She volunteers with the Essential Skills computer workshops and is currently applying to volunteer with the English as a Second Language program.
"Throughout her own learning process she has always remained dedicated to helping others," said Sara. "Being a mature student is not easy. Entering a classroom with younger peers and learning the routines and keeping up with technology can seem daunting to some, but Tammy has persevered with every step along the way."
Tammy encourages others to return to the classroom and follow their dreams.
"Just do it and the confidence will come along as you go. You just have to take that first step."