By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Welding classes at Lone Star High School North get underway quickly. As soon as the heavy metal door to the shop slams closed, students crisscross the floor, briskly rolling out machines, donning flame resistant jackets and snapping on face shields.
A few hellos, a gathering of tools and the shop hums like a vintage car. During our visit early this year, motors whirred and sparks flew, giving the room an air of possibilities. Flames shot from the welding “sticks,” as they seared through metal. Each weld inched toward a creation, a barbecue smoker or a trailer hitch, and charted the student's progress toward a series of certificates confirming their competence as a welding apprentice.
It’s no wonder the students waste no time getting started. The shop offers both creative and practical rewards.
For C.H., the class became his purpose and solace during a 10-month stay at Gainesville State School. He saw the metalcraft as his path toward independence, welding being a needed and well-paid trade. He also discovered it could be an emotional anchor, offering, despite the crackling din of the shop, zen moments. He felt it when fully immersed in welding tasks.
“Whenever you’re under the welding hood and all you can really hear is the welding machine and the arc, it’s just a calm place for me I guess,” he said.
When C.H. got to Gainesville, he’d already served time in a county probation program for youthful offenders. There, he excelled at academics. Presented with online classes to study for his graduate equivalency certificate, he completed the 20+ credits he needed in lightning speed. In just nine months he had his GED, an amazing feat for someone still in his middle teens.
He arrived at Gainesville State School, merely 16 years old, and effectively done with high school and ready for next steps.
Fortunately, Gainesville’s well-established welding class, helmed by veteran teacher Denver Foster, stood ready for students who need a new challenge. Foster and other Vo-Tech teachers across TJJD say they’re well positioned to help students who may not be headed to college, but are motivated to build career skills.
“As soon as I got here they put me straight into welding classes and I have come to very much love it,” C.H. said in a soft voice. “I like the ability to make things. You control that metal and it does what you want it to do, if you handle it right.”
After taking the pre-requisite safety tests, he quickly moved to fabricating products. Foster watched with pleasure as C.H. helped with a big class project, the creation of a barbecue smoker, and also assembled and polished four metal practice sleds that the class created for the school’s Tornadoes football team.
Just as he had whipped through online academic classes, C.H. quickly dispatched with all the incremental tests showing he could weld in different positions -- laterally, overhead, and so forth. He earned seven welding certificates and advanced into a new role as a peer mentor helping other students.
“He was like my right hand,” Foster said. “All these boys are like my boys, and I’m like their proud dad.”
C.H. was exceptional, though, and mastered skills at Gainesville that are nearly akin to what he’d acquire at a longer community college program, Foster said.
“He’s got some good prospects that’s for sure. He could make an easy $15 to $18 an hour starting wage in any large market in Texas.”
Tall, soft-spoken and studious, C.H. grew up in a small town in Texas in his paternal grandparents’ home. His mother was “not in the picture” and his father had “one foot in” his life, he said.
He played sports, did well in school and read avidly -- both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. Reading was good company, but English, was not his favorite academic subject. He enjoyed math, science and history, and when he was sent to a boot camp program, he quickly mastered the online classes in those subjects.
“A lot of it was just easy,” he says, explaining that the online aspect of the courses allowed him to jump ahead and pass tests to demonstrate competence.
Though he’d made some big mistakes in life, landing him in probation, C.H. says he was also learning that putting his mind to a task yielded rewards. After a second violation of the law resulted in his probation being revoked and a commitment to Gainesville, he learned something else.
“I think he was surprised by how much people here were willing to help him,” said his former caseworker Rebecca Williams. She recalls several long and intense conversations with Ryan as he worked out plans for his future.
“He’s such a sweet kid, caring and wants to do good. He’s really the sort of kid who makes you realize why you do this job,” said Williams, who is now the family liaison at Gainesville.
C.H. credits Williams, Foster and several dorm staff with helping him stay motivated and his volunteer mentor Judy Davis with helping him see the big picture.
“My old mentor she used to say that being in the system can either be a stumbling block or a stepping stone, so I used it as much as I could, so it would be easier when I got out,” he said.
Like so many youth at TJJD, C.H. was dealt some tough hands early in life, and as a result, he’s slow to trust and good at putting up emotional walls, Davis said.
“The life that some of these kids have, it really does break your heart,” she said.
At the same time, she says, many youth, like C.H., are driven to help themselves as they approach adulthood. There’s a window of opportunity for mentors, teachers and coaches to reach out, reinforce positive behaviors and offer guidance and support that can make a difference, she said.
Davis always offers to stay in touch with youth she’s helped, she said, but she leaves the decision to maintain ties to them. Sometimes, she’ll get a call from a young man she hasn’t heard from in a long time, telling her they’ve gotten their life on track. She hopes C.H. will be among those who succeed and report back.
“He’s learned a lot of people skills he didn’t have before,” she said. “He’s learned a lot about himself too, what his trigger points are and how he can think differently.”
Now at a halfway house, C.H., now 17, expects to go home in May. He looks forward to reconnecting with his sister and then getting into the workforce as soon as possible, ideally as an apprentice at a commercial welding shop.
Unfortunately, C.H. may again face headwinds as the job market wobbles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he vows to be ready when the jobs openings present themselves.
“As soon as I get a stable job where I can live independently that‘s what I plan on doing.”