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Springdale Job Corps students educate lawmakers about school

Federal government ponies up more funding for educational centers
by: Contributed graphic, Springdale students Melissa Sanchez-Gonzalez, left, and Alexis Barker pose next to Sen. Gordon Smith during their trip to the capital.

Melissa Sanchez-Gonzalez, 25, had to leave high school her freshman year due to various issues.

Now she has a general equivalency diploma and a possible future in business technology, thanks to PIVOT, a satellite program of Springdale Job Corps.

According to Springdale's Web site, PIVOT provides training for up to 50 female students, ages 16 to 24, in the business technologies trade (Sanchez-Gonzalez enrolled before she was 25).

'The mission of the program is to provide comprehensive educational and vocational training to empower single and parenting teens to move successfully from welfare to work,' the Web site states.

'I love to learn a lot of things, and ever since I've been here, I've opened up my eyes to a lot of things in life,' Sanchez-Gonzalez says. She adds that she hopes the federal government continues to support Job Corps and PIVOT.

'As long as you have drive and will to do this, this is the perfect place for young adults who are growing,' she says. 'I'm just so happy and grateful that this place exists.'

Along with Springdale student Alexis Barker, 23, Sanchez-Gonzalez attended the Management and Training Student Leadership Conference and National Job Corps Association Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., Feb. 24-28.

They went to Washington to share the story of Springdale, which offers six vocational training programs in business technologies, culinary arts, auto body collision repair, protective services/security, health occupations and medical office support, according to its Web site. The program is intended to assist low-income young people and is free to qualified applicants.

The young women, who were selected to act as representatives of the National Job Corps, participated in educational outreach to congressional representatives and senators, according to Asha Swem, Springdale's business and community liaison. The students participated in four meetings with aides of Oregon's congressional delegation, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden and Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden.

The students shared their stories and encouraged the congressmen to support funding requests for Job Corps Centers around the nation. They also met Wyden, Smith and Blumenauer.

Swem noted that Job Corps has been facing budget challenges, a notion seconded by the National Job Corps Association, which states the program's funding has been cut by $153 million, or 12 percent, between fiscal years 2003 and 2008.

However, the 2009 federal budget promises some good news for Job Corps, according to Erin Allweiss, spokeswoman for Blumenauer. She said that the new budget provides $1.86 billion for Job Corps, an increase from last year's budget of almost $1.6 billion.

Donna Patrick, Springdale's director, says budget challenges have hit Springdale in a number of ways. For example, she says, it's difficult for the center to upgrade its training equipment in such programs as office assistant or protective services. Meanwhile, the budget crunch also makes it challenging to attract qualified teachers in skilled trades.

Swem added, for example, that an auto body instructor could probably make twice as much in the private world as he or she could as an instructor.

According to a number of sources, Job Corps, which was started as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, has experienced a rollercoaster ride in terms of political support, and has been attacked at times for perceived wastefulness. On the other hand, supporters point to studies that show for every dollar Job Corps spends, almost $2 is generated in economic activity, and that 24 jobs are created for every $1 million each center spends.

Swem added that she hopes Congress realizes that places like Springdale are a boon to the economy.

'If a recession is coming, we're providing skilled workers, not people who are going to be a drain on the economy.'

When asked if it would be better to simply let private industry train such workers, Swem noted that the school provides crucial entry-level training that companies might not offer.

'With no skills, it's going to take a lot longer to work up to a living wage.'

Patrick added that the students not only learn work skills, they also learn such employability skills as punctuality and how to dress and act appropriately at a job.

Esther Johnson, director of the National Job Corps, also spoke to the students and answered questions from a select group that included Alexis Barker. Sanchez-Gonzalez was part of a special presentation team that distributed a brief to all of the center directors from all MTC Job Corps Centers in the United States, Swem said.

Swem said the congressional officials were responsive to the concerns of the Springdale delegation, and that she hopes Congress will continue to support Job Corps.

'It's one of the best kept secrets, but it shouldn't be.'

Patrick echoed that.

'By continuing with the Job Corps program, low-income youth will benefit. Otherwise they'll just go into the welfare system, and you'll have more problems.'