With the U.S. Capitol as its stage, Job Corps celebrated its 45th birthday this week with Job Corps students from around the country who were able to give members of Congress some first-person accounts of the program.
"Job Corps is like a new family to me," 22-year-old Brandon Diggs declared at the inaugual National Job Corps Student Oratory Competition, which he handily won with his thick Tennessee accent and a candid story about the aimlessness and despair he felt before the self-described "mama's boy" enrolled the Mississippi Job Corps Center in Crystal Springs, Miss.
Standing upright at the podium with an aura of gravitas and sporting a dark blue suit that he once might not have ever worn except to his own funeral, Diggs spoke of how he once lived a street life that was leading to a fate like that of his older brothers who had gotten incarcerated and one who had gotten killed in his native Memphis.
His awakening came when he saw a Job Corps commercial that touted the program as a way to get a credential and a skill.
"I knew I could have a good life if I had those things, if I made an extra push," said Diggs, who is now studying to become a plumber.
Diggs' oratory skills won him a "gold medal" award and its $1,000 prize.
Throughout the day, similar success stories were easy to find among youths who had gathered for the celebration - which marked a milestone that Job Corps officials portrayed as a testament to the program's relevance and vitality in the field of youth development.
"Make no mistake about it. It isn't every day that a government program turns 45 years old," Lavera Leonard, president of the National Job Corps Association, told the celebrants at the South Orientation Theater. "And it isn't every day when that program is a bona fide public-private partnership, and it isn't every day when members of that public-private partnership are together."
Among the youths benefitting from that public-private partnership is Juan Lugo, 25, who started working in the electrical wiring program at the Albuquerque Job Corps.
His reward for sticking with Job Corps is a quasi-full-time job as an electrician's assistant with Fluor, an engineering and construction company that recently started hiring Job Corps graduates on a per project basis.
"As long as they keep giving me work, I'm sticking with Fluor," said Lugo, who is featured in a Fluor Job Corps Graduate Placement Program DVD called "Putting Your New Skills To Work in the Construction Industry."
Fluor bankrolled the 45th anniversary party, which afforded youths the opportunity to tour the halls of Congress and shadow and pose for pictures with its members.
Modesto Gloria, a 25-year Job Corps employee who now heads the Woodland Job Corps Career Development Center in Laurel, Md., says the education and training program's success is the result of longstanding collaboration between government, community, business and industry.
"The program would not exist without any one of those," Gloria said at the Rayburn congressional office building, where young Job Corps members handed out literature about their programs to passers-by.
Among the young Job Corps members was Karl Gaillard, 19, who soon will graduate from the Schenck Job Corps Center in Piasgah Forest N.C., and is a member of the U.S. Forest Service's Davidson River Initial Attack, a new Job Corps program that trains youth to fight forest fires.
For Gaillard, the visit to the nation's capital was a fitting capstone to a storied Job Corps stint that just a few weeks earlier put him in the thick of helping firefighters battle wildfires in California by laying down fire hoses and similar tasks.
"I think (Job Corps) is the best thing that ever happened in my life," said Gaillard.. "I've got to meet so many people and see so many places in a short amount of time."
A high school math teacher recommended that Gaillard join Job Corps back when he was a 17-year-old sophomore struggling to graduate from high school.
Now, when Gaillard graduates in October, he's set to start a job with the U.S. Forest Service at the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri making $11 or $12 an hour.
As a sign of how Job Corps has sought to keep up with the times, youths from two Job Corps sites staged a robotics competition and put on demonstrations in the foyer of a congressional office building. The spectacle -- which featured robots designed and built by crews from the San Jose (Calif.) and Collbran (Colo.) job corps centers - drew scores of spectators including Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who praised Job Corps' transformative power.
"It shows the ingenuity of kids who, if given the resources, expand horizons and move forward," Salazar said.