- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

After winning the National Job Corps Student Oratory Competition, 22-year-old Brandon Diggs had to turn away from the audience, overwhelmed by the standing ovation and lightning storm of camera flashes.

“I can’t believe this. Job Corps is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Mr. Diggs kept saying as he hugged his mother amid the flurry of excitement.

The speech competition drew more than 200 political leaders and spectators to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday. It was the highlight of a three-day celebration of Job Corps‘ 45th anniversary. Throughout its history, the Jobs Corps has served more than 2.5 million high school dropouts by providing housing, job training and opportunity.

Mr. Diggs is a changed man after joining the Crystal Springs, Miss., Job Corps Center in 2008. He described his youth as “gangs, thugs, smoking weed and getting drunk.” At 14, he watched his elder brother get killed on the street. At 17, Mr. Diggs dropped out of high school.

“I knew I was headed down the same road as my brother, but I thought there could be something different for me,” he told The Washington Times.

He saw a Job Corps commercial on TV and decided it was time to make a change.

Job Corps changed my life. It made me a better man,” said Mr. Diggs. “I used to sleep in all day, and now I wake up early. I’m the first one up on my dorm floor, and tell everyone to get up and let’s get it.”

Mr. Diggs now calls the staff and students at Crystal Springs “family” and is studying to become a plumber.

Job Corps students nationwide were asked to write speeches on the topic “What Job Corps Means to Me.”

The judges of the competition included Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, and celebrity chef Robert Irvine of the Food Network’s “Dinner: Impossible.”

One of the four finalists, Melissa Franc, 21, held the podium with both hands and looked straight at the audience: “Job Corps means that I no longer feel invisible. I am a somebody.”

Job Corps is the nation’s largest and most successful work-force development program for high school dropouts, with 123 centers in the District, 50 states and Puerto Rico. Administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it serves 16- to 24-year-olds. Students live in dorms on Job Corps campuses while participating in academic and vocational training. There is a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol, drugs and violence.

Most Job Corps students enter the program with a reading level below the eighth-grade average. Yet under the structured environment and close support of staff, students improve their math and reading skills by at least two grade levels by the end of the program.

Job Corps is a holistic experience for these students that they couldn’t get walking down the street to a GED program or in a large public school,” National Job Corps Association President LaVera L. Leonard told The Washington Times. “We’re different because we get kids out of destructive environments and into a supportive place with small class sizes, social-skills training and industry involvement. This is changing kids like Brandon Diggs‘ lives.”

Alonzo Serna,19, from the San Jose Job Corps Center, said he didn’t think he had a career future when he struggled to find a job and that Job Corps gave him a second chance.

Job Corps is different than school because you get to choose to be here and work hard. I can now say I am proud that I took this opportunity,” he said.

Mr. Serna graduated from the San Jose center in June, after completing the culinary arts and transportation programs.

He now aspires to be a chef on a train. “I even got my CPR license, so if someone chokes in my restaurant I can help them,” said Mr. Serna, whose favorite dish to prepare is chicken alfredo.

The anniversary event also allowed one-day internships in political offices on Capitol Hill. Students were able to interact with policy-makers and government personnel throughout the weekend.

Job Corps is “something our government leaders got right,” said Ms. Leonard. “It’s not every day a government program celebrates its 45th year.”

“We are a tested, accountable program that partners with private-sector companies to move students into the work force,” she said.

Job Corps provides a career transition service and job placement in local companies to help students succeed after graduation.

Maureen Lambe, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association Education Institute, hires District-area Job Corps students to work as maintenance technicians.

“This is a great partnership for businesses,” she said. “These students consistently excel in the apartment industry because they come into the job with solid plumbing, air conditioning and electrical skills because of Job Corps.”

Part of Job Corps‘ success has been the program’s ability to adapt to a changing technological world. This year showcased the results of a robotics program that participates in the worldwide US First Robotics Competition. Students built “Evo” the robot from scratch in six weeks. The 4-foot-tall robot is operated by a joystick and can shoot balls at targets.

Laurie Pianka, director of education services at Job Corps‘ charter school, the School for Integrated Academics and Technologies, manages Team 1834 at the San Jose Job Corps Center in California. “Most of these kids don’t think of themselves as future possible engineers or scientists, and we want to show them these careers are within their reach,” she said.

Every student who has participated in the robotics program has gone on to complete their high school diploma, and many are now in college studying technology, engineering and science.

Job Corps is also joining the green movement as it updates curriculum to teach composting, solar-panel installation and energy conservation.

“We are training our students to be competitive in a market of emerging green and technological jobs and opening the career world to them,” Ms. Pianka said. “Job Corps wants to show kids they are not at risk, but at promise.”

Mr. Diggs has promised to take his mother out to dinner with his $1,000 prize from the speech competition.

“This is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Mr. Diggs said as he kissed his first-place medal.

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