Thirty-nine-year old Doug Kirchner is a Project Learn graduate and sophomore at Kent State University with a 4.0 GPA in his major of applied conflict management and minor in criminal justice.

He told a crowd of 150 people Wednesday at the 14th annual Leaders for Literacy Awards Breakfast at the Quaker Square Station in downtown Akron that he never dreamed of being a college student.

It wasn’t until he lost his 12-year-old daughter to a six-year fight with brain cancer. Before she died, he made a promise to her that he would get his GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma).

“I dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to pursue a life in music that I thought would last forever,” he said. “For me, I never thought I would go anywhere but to menial jobs making $7 or $8 an hour because I didn’t have a GED.”

Around the time he lost his daughter, he also lost his home and his business — he ran three cellphone stores — while trying to pay her medical expenses. School was a chance to start over.

“Now I’m in college and it’s changed my life” he said.

He received several scholarships, allowing him to take 15-to-18 credit hours per semester. He also works as a private bodyguard for local and state government and does some private investigation work on fraud cases. He and his wife, Katie, live in Cuyahoga Falls raising three sons, ages 3, 5 and 10.

“All of the students at Project Learn have stories,” Kirchner said. “But the one story we all should have is that we all graduate and we all have that extra push to make it further in life.”

The keynote speaker, Akron native Chris “Beanie” Wells, also had a success story.

The Garfield High School graduate and All-American running back and starter at the Ohio State was a first round draft pick for the Arizona Cardinals.

He said he went from being an urban city kid in Akron, to going to Ohio State, playing on a professional level and then leaving that realm and becoming an everyday working class individual.

He talked about how his parents stressed the importance of education and thanked the support of his high school principal, coach and guidance counselor, who were in the audience, saying they helped shape him into the person he is today.

“There are so many obstacles outside your front door that can pull you one way or another, and it’s up to you to decide which way you want to go,” he said. “I figured out who I was, where I wanted to be and how I was going to get there.”

He said he went back to school and finished up his last year of college at Ohio State while in rehab with a torn Achilles tendon he suffered in 2013 in hopes of returning to the NFL. He faced his reality that football was probably over for him.

“Things in life don’t last long,” Wells said. “There is more than one way to reach a destination, but the first thing you need is education.”

Wells, who received a degree in communications, is a sports analyst for Fox Sports Ohio and is the owner of Wells Porter Trucker, a transportation company. He lives in the Columbus area.

The 2015 Leaders for Literacy Award Recipients are Ralph Sinistro, Ohio Means Jobs Center Manager for Summit County’s Department of Job and Family Services, who won the Individual Literacy Leadership Award. He was described by County Executive Russ Pry as a “silent, tireless worker who wakes up every day trying to help people.”

The Cuyahoga Falls Library won the Community Literacy Leadership Award for providing classroom space for Project Learn and for their many services to individuals and organizations in the community.

The audience included past award recipients Karen Feth of Richfield, who was a volunteer tutor; Denise Griggs of Cuyahoga Falls, who served on Project Learn’s Board of Directors for 12 years and was the chief financial officer for the Burton D. Morgan Foundation; and Myra Snipes, who currently serves on the board and is the equal employment officer for the city of Akron.

Since 1981, Project Learn has helped 19,000 people. The program operates at 17 sites in Summit County.

“We try to find locations that are easily accessible by bus or in neighborhoods for the classes and we have flexibility, day and night classes,” said Rick McIntosh, executive director of Project Learn of Summit County. “Sometimes life gets in the way, people have to move or change jobs or shifts. It’s our job not to create any additional barriers, especially ones that we can control. It doesn’t matter how good the services are if people can’t get to them.”

For more information visit, www.ProjectLearnSummit.org or call, 330-434-9461.

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.