“She came, we talked, we clicked,” Nelson said, settling in behind her desk at the Adult Learning Center on North Greenwood Street in Lebanon. “I didn’t ask anything of her, I just tried to help her.”
Nelson added that “because of her persona,” she thought Wilson would “really speak to the people I was trying to serve.”
Wilson completed the GED course and “walked the line” to get her diploma in May, flying home from Los Angeles that day after an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“She said would be there and speak as long as nothing happened where she just couldn’t make it,” Nelson said with a smile. “And when she walked onstage the place just erupted in applause. I laughed and said it was the best reception I’d ever gotten.”
Nelson said Wilson wanted to “get more involved” in raising awareness about the Adult Learning Center and the GED program “because she’s been so blessed by God, and she wants to help others.” Nelson said she developed “an easy rapport” with Wilson’s agents and managers and even attended a party in Wilson’s honor on Music Row after Wilson’s graduation.
Nelson said she was planning a trip to London this month, set to leave on Oct. 1, when about a week before she planned to leave she received a phone call from Wilson’s manager inviting her to one of the singer’s shows at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville. Wilson wanted Nelson to come as her guest and “do a meet and greet” after the event.
“They also said we’d do something with CNN,” Nelson said. “I thought Gretchen wanted to do something with the GED program, and I was thrilled to be a part of that.”
Nelson said that instead, after milling around with the Sony/BMG record company officials and being led to a stage front table, she was surprised when, about halfway through the concert, Wilson announced that CNN was airing a special segment about celebrity heroes and her own hero was at the concert tonight.
“She asked me to stand up and I nearly fell down, I was so shocked and surprised,” Nelson recalled. “It was an absolutely wonderful and complete surprise.”
Nelson learned of the details the next day during a call from CNN headquarters in New York City. A film crew, including reporter Leslie Askew and Emmy-winning cinematographer Adam Ravetch, filmed in Lebanon on Sept. 29 and 30, days before Nelson left for her trip to England.
“It was a heady experience,” Nelson said of the two days. “I was amazed that it took this much time and this much film for a 2-minute segment. I was glad to go on my vacation after that.”
Nelson’s Celebrity Hero segment will air, tentatively, during Larry King Live on CNN on Thursday, Oct. 30. She said it will then be re-aired for the next three or four days and aired on CNN International and CNN Espanol. She said she’s excited about the opportunity not just to be spotlighted on an international news channel but because it will bring awareness about the GED program to the millions of people in the country – and the some 1.2 million Tennesseans above age 25 – who never finished high school.
“This is an incredible honor, especially because adult education gets so little attention and money,” she said. “Any kind of exposure you can get for this program is good.”
Nelson said that in Tennessee every K-12 grade student gets approximately $8,000 - $9,000 per student per year to spend on their education from state and local coffers. Adult education students get on an average less than $100.
She stressed that in today’s business and economic world, those without a high school diploma or GED have very few opportunities to excel, especially those who started in a factory or similar position in high school, dropped out of school, have worked for many years at that job and are now being laid off. She said that people 30 or so years ago could work their way up through company ranks to gain higher positions, but if they lose their job and don’t have a diploma or GED their opportunity to get another similar position is close to nothing.
“Many companies won’t even hire you without it,” Nelson stressed. “Every piece of paper you have, every document, gives you the opportunity to do what you want, to make your own decisions, instead of someone else telling you what to do. It’s amazing to me how limited your choices are without your GED.”
Nelson added that many businesses locate in Tennessee because there is no income tax, with many businesses locating in Wilson County, but those businesses want “an educated workforce” to pull employees from.
“Education is such an incredibly important component to American society, and I think a lot of people forget that, or take it for granted,” Nelson said. “And so few people know this place, the Adult Education Center, exists, that this opportunity exists.”
The Adult Education Center is located at 107 N. Greenwood Street in Lebanon. For more information call 443-8731.
For now, Nelson said the Adult Education Center of Wilson County serves between 600-700 people per year in various programs, including the GED program, which she stressed as vitally important for more than just economic reasons.
“It saves lives,” she said. “It saves families.”
For more information on the Celebrity Heroes program, visit www.CNN.com.
Editor’s Note: Tomi L. Wiley is the editor of The Chronicle of Mt. Juliet.