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GED aided 34-year-old trucking entrepreneur

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

ROCKFORD (AP) – In less than a year’s time, Rockford’s Keonta Burnell went from a low-paid laborer at a barbershop to a small business owner strategizing on how to expand.

It took a push from a parent, motivation from a daughter – and a GED.

Burnell was a 34-year-old single father of four making $50 to $75 a week – “plus they bought me lunches” – sweeping up and doing maintenance work.

Burnell’s father owns a small trucking company. He told his son “if I’d do what needed to be done to get certified he’d help me get started” in the trucking business.

It took 4 months of preparation, but Burnell, with help from the nonprofit job training group Rock River Training Corp., passed his GED exam in April.

“Relearning all that stuff took a lot of time,” Burnell said. “There were some younger people in the classes, and they helped me out.”

He immediately started work on earning his Commercial Drivers License, a GED or high school diploma is required to earn a CDL, and in June, he started Big Japp Trucking Inc. His first job was for Williams Charles Construction of Loves Park.

Of course, not every GED graduate finds success as quickly as Burnell. A parent with resources was a key ingredient in his story. But it shows that for many just earning a basic high school degree or GED is the barrier keeping them from moving from subsistence pay to something that at least can put food on a table and keep the lights on.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, more than 18 percent of adults aged 25 and above in Rockford in 2011 and 14.7 percent of adults in Winnebago County didn’t have a high school degree or GED. In Illinois, the percentage of adults without that key achievement was 13.3 percent.

This week, Boone-Winnebago County Regional School Superintendent Lori Fanello announced that 1,110 people from Boone and Winnebago counties — that includes Burnell — had passed their GED tests in the past 17 months.

The number was significant because a group of educational and nonprofit organizations had set a goal of helping more than 1,000 people pass GEDs between July 1, 2012 and Dec. 31, 2013, in part because the cost of taking the GED test and difficulty of the test increases in 2014.

On Jan. 1, the cost increases from $50 to $120 to take the test, which goes from being a written exam to one given on a computer. Also, individuals have to complete the entire exam. Any uncompleted portions will wipe out the scores.

Fanello’s office will continue to offer GED testing this year through Dec. 20, including Saturday, for people who need to complete the GED before the end of the year.

Burnell said he always wanted to earn his GED — he went to Jefferson but dropped out — and had additional motivation because he has a daughter who is a junior at Guilford.

“I wanted to get my GED before she gets her diploma,” he said. “She didn’t even know I didn’t have one. She said ‘I thought you graduated with mom.’

“I said, ‘I was supposed to ... but things happen.’”

Now, he owns his own business. Big Japp Trucking was busy for much of the second half of the year hauling dirt and getting materials from quarries. Burnell said the plan is to continue to pick up more work, save as much as possible so he can buy a second truck and hire a driver, and then keep on trucking, as they say.

“I tell people if you can’t tolerate your situation then get up and do something about it,” Burnell said. “Things won’t get better for you unless you decide to do something about it.”

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Source: Rockford Register Star, http://bit.ly/1ktgiJ5

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Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com

This is an Illinois Spotlight story shared by the Rockford Register Star.

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