When Merle Barkley Jr. enrolled in the Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration program at Westmoreland County Community College, he had lost his house and was raising four children on his own.
Without a car, he walked five miles to and from work each day. While he studied HVAC in high school, he didn’t have the credentials and certifications needed to earn a family sustaining wage.
So Barkley, 33, knew he had to go to college.
“I was making 10, 11 dollars an hour. With four kids by myself, that’s not enough,” Barkley said. “My kids are my number one priority.”
As a participant in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Barkley was enrolled in the Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS) program at Westmoreland. It helps participants successfully complete their course of study.
“They’re calming and they’re reassuring. They help create a mindset of ‘I can do this,’” Barkley said about the KEYS staff.
The program is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. Support services provided by KEYS include transportation assistance, school supplies and childcare.
“You can tell that they care. You’re not just a number,” Barkley said. “If you’re in the KEYS program, you are dealing with everything that goes with poverty. They helped lighten the load, just talking to them.”
Barkley completed his associate of applied science degree in five semesters and made the President’s List several times.
“They have everything that is out in the field and a good curriculum,” Barkley said about the HVAC program. “I have a portfolio of work and accomplishments.”
He was getting job offers before he graduated in May and accepted a position as an installation technician at Gillece.
“It is nice to be self-sufficient,” Barkley said. “Assistance is there for help, but it shouldn’t be a way of life.”
In addition to giving him confidence, Barkley’s degree and career are important examples for his children.
“No matter what, if you work hard you can accomplish things.”