Tammy Hackenberg started working on her high school equivalency diploma (GED) when she was 18 years old. Twenty years later, she earned this distinction with Perry County Literacy Council.
Hackenberg left home at age 16, and she says her parents didn’t fight for her to stay.
“I dropped out of school about three-and-a-half months before graduation,” she says. “I had a job and an apartment. The school’s guidance counselor came to my apartment and begged me to stay in school. I started into drugs and alcohol by that time, and I just didn’t care.”
The first time Hackenberg started working on her high school equivalency, she had just gotten out of rehab, and she planned to go into the Air Force. She waited the required six months after exiting rehab, and on the day she was ready to sign the military commitment form, she found out she was pregnant.
Health problems derailed Hackenberg’s efforts many times over the years. She has diabetes and suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that affects blood circulation. The primary signs of the illness are lightheadedness, fainting, and an uncomfortable, rapid increase in heartbeat. “It’s like a panic attack times 100,” Hackenberg says.
When Hackenberg became pregnant again – this time with twins – her condition put her at risk. At the same time, her husband had aplastic anemia, a condition that occurs when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. The disease left him feeling fatigued and gave him a higher risk of infections and uncontrolled bleeding. He was still working, and Hackenberg didn’t realize that he had become addicted to the pain medicine he used for his treatment. “He wouldn’t even take Tylenol when I met him,” she says. “He wound up shooting heroin and ended up in prison.”
Her marriage ended, and Tammy was left to raise three children on her own.
At age 34, she had completed all of her subjects except Math when another obstacle arose: she suffered two strokes and two mini-strokes over the course of two years.
“I lost so much of my memory with the strokes,” she said. “I forgot almost everything.”
When she came to Perry County Literacy Council (PCLC), Hackenberg was more determined than ever to get her diploma. She worked with the Student Tutor Coordinator and teacher, Dawn Beaver (who unfortunately passed away), whose encouragement, along with PCLC’s flexible schedule, were crucial factors to Hackenberg’s success.
“I just knew this time was it,” said Hackenberg. “Dawn really worked with me, and she did all she could. She had my back and was trying to push me forward…Everyone in that office is wonderful.”
When Beaver informed Hackenberg that she had passed her Math test and completed her studies, Hackenberg could hardly believe it. But when her diploma arrived in the mail, it finally felt real. Her certificate is hanging on her refrigerator until she can afford a frame.
Hackenberg says her twin daughters are very proud of her and have suggested that she should take one of the pictures off of the wall and frame her diploma to keep it safe.
Getting a better job is essential to Hackenberg, and it was a huge factor in motivating her to finish. She now works in home healthcare, and although she says she has the heart for her work, it does wear her out. Working 12-hour days is tough; she doesn’t get home until 8 p.m. and then she has to take care of her girls.
One thing that has gotten easier is insisting that her children work hard on their studies. “It’s hard to stay on your kids about how important school is when you didn’t graduate yourself,” she says. “While I was working on getting my diploma, my daughter had to show me how to do my math sometimes.”
Despite her health problems, car breakdowns and all of the other things that she has to deal with, Hackenberg manages to remain upbeat.
“I’ve had a lot of bumps in the road. Sometimes I get knocked down for a few days, but then I wake up in the morning and find one positive thing to cling to, and I keep going. And I’ll even get my picture taken for your story because I’m proud as [heck] of that diploma.”