At Olympic College, a program helps low-income students afford the costs of college life
When Chris Cironi stepped onto the Bremerton campus of Olympic College, in the fall of 2012, he never thought to enter a classroom. Instead, he looked for a phone.
Just out of jail for theft charges related to meth addiction, Cironi wanted to talk to a friend. The trouble was, he couldn’t afford minutes for his cellphone. Plus his battery was dead. He knew that on the first floor of the Humanities and Student Services Building there was a phone anyone could use for free.
Being at Olympic’s Bremerton campus, a 33-acre community college where students pursue certificates and associate degrees or complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, reminded him of his troubled past with education. Cironi, 39, grew up in Southern California, and from elementary school on, his schooling was a litany of bad memories.
“I was a complete failure in high school,” Cironi said one day, earlier this month, as he sat in his Bremerton one-bedroom apartment, a deck outside offering a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains.
Cironi dropped out in his junior year. His meth addiction was already in full swing, so his parents sent him to a residential treatment center for teens in Provo, Utah. There, he completed his GED. Since he was the only person in the treatment center to get a GED that quarter, he often considered himself “the valedictorian.” Even so, his later attempts at education stalled. He knew the Olympic campus because he had enrolled in the college in 2004 — but dropped out after two months.
So the day he used the phone was both a homecoming and a new start. He spoke to his friend and admitted he needed help. Soon after, he entered treatment and moved into a group home. People encouraged him to return to college, but with little money, he didn’t know if he could swing it.
More than 18 months after that phone call, Cironi is a student at Olympic. His finances have improved somewhat, and he believes that with an education, they’ll only get better.
In the meantime, Cironi relies upon SING, the Students in Need Group at Olympic College. A free program available to the more than 13,000 students who attend the college’s campuses in Shelton, Poulsbo and Bremerton, SING offers students resources to help them overcome financial barriers to education.
For the student who can’t afford to eat, SING provides free snacks or money to buy a meal in the cafeteria. For the student who can’t pay for toiletries, SING offers toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant.
For the student struggling to purchase textbooks, SING runs a book lending program. In the 2014 winter quarter, the program distributed more than 450 books with an average price of $75 each. In all, last quarter the program provided $34,000 worth of books to students.
The program is paid for through a combination of grants and student fees: Each student pays $1 a credit hour, up to $10 a quarter. Some of the free food and toiletries are gifts from faculty and staff, while many of the books are donated by students who’ve finished a class.
Since the program began in 2009, SING officials say more than 6,000 students have benefited.
“They’ve given me food when I needed it, a $25 gas voucher, provided me with school supplies: pencils, paper, anything that they have available,” said Cironi. “They’ve made it possible for me to go to school,” he said.
Coincidentally, the SING office is on the second floor of the building where Cironi placed his free phone call.
The program’s benefits, Cironi said, have allowed him to focus on staying in college, a prospect that used to seem impossible. “And then when I got in there, I started loving school,” he said. “Well, not math. But English. I love to write.”
Though his writing was never praised during his early education, former inmates he knew have admired his ease with words. Cironi said sometimes, at Olympic, he remembers those people, who showed their praise the best way they could: with candy bars.
When Cironi moved to Washington state in 1997, he thought that if he left behind old friends and familiar haunts, he could kick meth. It worked for a while, until he replaced meth with gin and tonics.
After a short stay in Kent, he moved to Port Townsend. He worked at a food co-op and got wasted as much as he could, he said. He enrolled at Peninsula College, to give education a try, but the gin and tonics got in the way. After a break up with a girlfriend, he eventually wound up in Bremerton.
To support himself, he worked at the Lakewood K-Mart in loss prevention, helping the store fight theft, fraud and waste. He was an honest employee, he said, but after he left, he found he couldn’t shake the ghosts of the past. Meth’s siren song lured him back in. “And once I started injecting it, it was all bad,” he said.
To support his habit, he dealt meth for a while and used his knowledge in loss prevention to stay flush. He did it by becoming a “booster,” a term for a seasoned shoplifter who enters a store, steals items and sells the goods, sometimes to a meth dealer, for 50 cents on the dollar. His thefts became so well known in the dope world, he said people nicknamed him Booster Chris. But boosting had its downside.
Cironi’s penchant for boosting was reported in a January 2009 article in the Kitsap Sun, which said he’d been charged with allegedly stealing more than $2,000 worth of merchandise from a Target and a Kohl’s. A security officer at Target, after seeing Cironi’s picture, said he was a suspect in at least six unsolved thefts. More crimes then led to more charges.
“I accrued six felonies and more than 20 misdemeanors,” Cironi said.
In jail, Cironi said some of his fellow inmates needed help writing letters to their legal counsels. Wanting to help out, he recalled information he’d overheard about other inmates’ cases and incorporated that into their letters. He said the inmates thought he was smart and told him he was a good writer, but Cironi didn’t absorb their compliments. Since they couldn’t show their gratitude with money, they used another commodity. They paid him in candy bars.
“Snickers with almonds were my preference,” he said.
Out of jail, Cironi’s struggles with meth continued. He also had a number of outstanding arrest warrants. His ex-girlfriend’s father was in recovery, and he offered Cironi support.
From that point, Cironi said he worked to change his life. He committed to sobriety and entered the Kitsap County Recovery Center, which helps people fighting chemical dependency. He moved into a group home. He sought to rectify those arrest warrants.
Instead of serving time in various county jails, Cironi worked out a plea bargain to be placed under house arrest, he said. The court mandated he wear a GPS monitor. With his criminal record, he couldn’t find work.
“Not even at Goodwill as a bell ringer [for the holidays],” he said.
Under house arrest, his actions were restricted. He could stay at his group home, go to 12-step meetings and take a weekly two-hour shopping trip. The only other place he could go was school. For a while, people had been pushing him to finish his degree, since it might help balance his criminal record. Cironi applied for financial aid at Olympic College, and he enrolled in the 2013 spring quarter.
“Needless to say if that’s the only place I could go,” he said, “I’d go.”
When it came to buying books, Cironi knew he didn’t have the money. His ex’s father told him about the book lending program at SING. The office had every book he needed.
Back on campus, there was a vibe and energy he enjoyed, even as he wore his ankle monitor. Instead of being self-conscious, he said he felt proud.
“By the time I went to school, I started to love myself,” Cironi said.
Sitting in her office at Olympic College, SING program manager Patricia Thomas said the program grew out of a grassroots effort that began five years ago.
Thomas said faculty, staff, community leaders and students realized that a growing number of students were living in their cars. After completing on-campus surveys, the ad hoc group realized students experiencing poverty could benefit from a system to address their needs. That system became SING.
“I call it a social service agency in the midst of academia,” Thomas said.
She said that SING received slightly more than $36,000 in start-up funds in January 2009 from Kitsap Community Resources (KCR), enough to keep SING running for almost 18 months and pay Thomas, an Olympic alumna, to work 20 hours a week. A KCR fiscal representative said the funds came from federal stimulus dollars received by the nonprofit, which board members decided to share with the community.
Over time, more funds came in. The college’s foundation office raised $10,000. Thomas had nominated local homeless advocate Sally Santana for the C. Keith Birkenfeld Humanitarian of the Year Award. When Santana won $25,000, she gave the money to SING. Ongoing grants and student fees have kept the program running, Thomas said.
Every few minutes as Thomas spoke, a student would drop by the office. Some returned books that had been loaned to them, thanking Thomas before walking out. Several stopped at the door and looked at a sign taped to the side of a bookcase that read “Students Please take a bag! This food is here for YOU.” Below the sign was a woven basket full of re-sealable plastic bags. Several of the bags held a cup of dehydrated ramen noodles and a small box of Frosted Flakes.
One student, Denise Thetford, walked in and asked Thomas if she had the textbook for the college’s Law and Ethics course. Thomas said she didn’t, but she’d try to find a copy.
Thetford said that before she came to Olympic, she had been married for 20 years. Her husband’s alcoholism contributed to their divorce, she said, and as a single mother of two, she lost her home to foreclosure. She filed for bankruptcy.
She knew she had to reinvent herself. Thetford said she decided to get a master’s degree in psychology, in order to work as a chemical dependency professional. Olympic is the first step toward that career.
“So I’m a 43-year-old woman trying to start my life over,” she said. “If I didn’t have this program, I wouldn’t be able to attend to college.”
When Thetford left, Thomas said her favorite part of the job was watching students transform. “They come in scared, alone, and then they leave so positive and confident,” she said.
That transformation is all the more moving, she said, because many students feel ashamed to ask for help. SING strips away any shame, she said, and it works because people want to give to others. That giving begets giving, she said.
“It’s Christmas around here all the time,” Thomas said.
Cironi said his experience at Olympic has been a gift that keeps giving.
At 39, he thought he’d be the oldest student on campus, but faculty members told him older students are a core part of the student body. (While the median age of students at Olympic is 23, 34 percent are 30 or older.) As Cironi went to classes, he ran into people he’d used meth with but who were now sober, pursuing secondary education. And after taking a core curriculum of English, Spanish, math and geography, Cironi’s GPA is 3.86.
“To find out that I was actually smart, after feeling like I hadn’t been for so long, it was a breakthrough for my self-confidence,” he said.
He said that self-confidence will be a quality he needs as he pursues his goal of completing his associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s in English at a state university. That step means he’ll have to leave Bremerton, a reality that scares him, but he said fear has kept him back for too long.
The ankle monitor no longer holds him back either. After wearing it for 13 months, he ended his house arrest on Feb. 28. Since the college was one of the few places he could be while wearing the monitor, he spent as many hours there as possible. Without it, he said he’ll still spend hours there, since he plans to devote as much time as possible to his studies.
Cironi said in the past, he never thought he’d find success as a college student. But with SING’s help, he said that higher education, and a way to overcome his criminal record, are both within his reach. Going back to school has shown him anyone can begin again.
“That was one of the biggest things in my life,” he said.
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