Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Life Lessons: Tri-County OIC helps area adults continue their education, seeks volunteers

Kathy Watkins-Lewis

Continuing her education as an adult has been an uphill battle for Kathy Watkins-Lewis.

The 70-year-old Harrisburg resident started pursuing her GED when her son was young. She wanted to be able to help him with his homework. Now, he’s 51, and Watkins-Lewis is still working towards her goal.

“There was always something hindering me,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of personal trauma. But this is a promise that I made to myself. I’m doing this for me.”

While Watkins-Lewis has needed to pause and resume her studies for years, slowly chipping away at her goal, Tri-County OIC has remained a constant support in her life.

The organization, located on Maclay Street in Harrisburg, provides adult education courses to local residents. Every year, hundreds of adult learners like Watkins-Lewis come to the OIC to receive assistance in getting a high school equivalency diploma, learning English and for vocational and digital literacy help. They also offer a program for those re-entering society after prison.

According to Bill Gustafson, tutor recruiter for the OIC, like Watkins-Lewis, many participants in the organization’s programs take years to complete their courses. Getting an education as an adult comes with unique challenges like childcare, transportation and financial issues, he said.

Gustafson started as a volunteer at the OIC when he retired and was looking for a way to help people. But he quickly discovered how rewarding the experience was for him, as well.

“People are happy to be here and to achieve their goals,” he said. “It’s just great. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.” 


Where You Should Be

With the recent migration of refugees from Afghanistan and the likely influx of Ukrainian refugees, Tri-County expects the demand for its English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to increase.

The organization is currently in need of volunteers for that program in the form of tutors, classroom aides and one-on-one helpers. Only know English? According to Annette Reiff, volunteer coordinator, that’s actually a good thing, as tutors encourage students to only speak English in the classroom to assist in the learning process.

New volunteers for the program will undergo orientation and training and don’t need any experience in education to serve, Reiff explained. All Tri-County OIC asks is that they make a commitment to volunteering for a longer period of time.

“I think it’s the most rewarding experience you can have,” Gustafson said. “This is where you should be.”

Tri-County OIC has operated in Harrisburg since 1965, as part of a nationwide alliance of OIC’s. Over the years, the local organization has grown and taught classes at over 75 locations in the Harrisburg area.

“People come because they know people here will help them change,” Gustafson said.


Degrees & Dreams

While Watkins-Lewis originally started the process of getting her GED when her son was young, she’s now working towards the same goal alongside her grandchildren.

“I tell them, ‘don’t wait until you’re as old as me to get this education,’” she said.

Still, her age has never deterred her from pursuing education, although there have been times where she considered giving up. Watkins-Lewis remembers when she talked to an OIC tutor about the personal struggles she was going through.

“You can open up to them,” she said. “It’s like a family. I love them.”

Watkins-Lewis hopes to receive her high school equivalency diploma in the near future and then wants to take courses at a community college, she said. Getting an education is the best way she can find to better herself.

The staff and volunteers of the OIC would agree. According to Reiff, education is one of the best ways to help someone get out of poverty and find job opportunities. But it’s also a way to find renewed hope for the future. For Watkins-Lewis, that hope has remained strong through the years, thanks to the support from volunteers at the OIC.

“They take the time out of their busy schedules to teach us,” she said. “They really don’t have to. I really appreciate it.”

Tri-County OIC is located at 500 Maclay St., Harrisburg. For more information or to sign up to volunteer, visit

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