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A second chance worth a second look

I know teachers who received pink slips last year and haven't found work yet. I also have unemployed friends who ran training programs to help others find work and now are fighting the sense of uselessness that sometimes accompanies joblessness.

All are highly educated. All well qualified.

If they can't find work, what hope is there for those who are uneducated, unskilled and unable to hold onto a minimum-wage job?

For the young — those 16 to 24 years old — there could be hope with Job Corps.

Rebecca Bodkin, 17, of Florence thinks a lot of young people can get a leg up from Job Corps.

Rebecca and her best friend, Blanco Moreno, entered the Frenchburg Job Corps Center in June and hope to graduate together. Rebecca has earned a GED but is also working on her high school diploma, and she has nearly finished her course work in culinary arts.

Before Job Corps, school wasn't going very well for Rebecca, so her mother decided to home-school her. "That didn't work out too well," Rebecca said, laughing.

The atmosphere at Frenchburg Job Corps is different.

"I think I have more freedom here," she said. "I'm not treated like a child. They don't look down on you for what you did wrong. Here there are people focusing on you personally, taking time with you."

Born out of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964, Job Corps has always been an education and technical training program for disadvantaged youth. The program is an offshoot of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. From Job Corps' inception, the belief has been that with training, young people could get better jobs and the larger paychecks skilled labor commands, lifting them out of poverty and off future welfare rolls.

Along the way, though, the image of Job Corps became that of a purgatory of sorts for those hoping to avoid the judicial system.

"In the past, some were court-ordered to go," said Lisa Van Coppenolle, a Job Corps outreach and admissions counselor based in Lexington. "But the courts don't order them anymore. They weren't successful.

"We want people who are committed," she said. "A lot of students don't like traditional school. We can give them the motivation to get out there, and they can use it as a steppingstone to college."

Rebecca feels quite comfortable at Frenchburg, and if there are fellow students with checkered pasts, she doesn't know about them.

"We don't talk about your past here. I feel completely safe," she said.

There are 122 centers in 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. They offer 75 career programs.

Kentucky has seven residential Job Corps centers offering 30 programs, including auto mechanics, welding, carpentry, construction, information technology and commercial truck driving. As more emphasis is placed on renewable resources, job training will be adapted to that area as well. Some centers are geared for students who are single parents.

"Job Corps graduates are better prepared for careers in today's work force than ever before, and given the country's economic condition, the success of these students is more important than ever," Shay Khayat, project coordinator for Kentucky Job Corps outreach and admissions and career transition services, wrote in an e-mail.

"The education standards have increased," Khayat wrote. "Students can still receive their high school diplomas or GEDs while at Job Corps, but more and more high school graduates are enrolling in the program. Most centers partner with community and technical colleges so students can take college courses while training at Job Corps.

"In fact, the Whitney Young Job Corps Center in Simpsonville has partnerships with Jefferson Community and Technical College and Kentucky State University."

A federally funded program under the Department of Labor, Job Corps offers housing, meals, basic health and dental care, and a biweekly living allowance to 60,000 students nationwide.

In its annual report for 2006, Job Corps reported that three-fourths of its students nationwide were high school dropouts and that about 20 percent, the largest group, were 17 years old. Some 60 percent were male, and a little more than half were black. The usual length of stay in the program is about a year, but the stay could be up to two years for advanced training.

Rebecca said she plans to enroll in advanced training to specialize in an area of culinary arts, perhaps pastry preparation. "I'm getting the basics now, but in advanced training I'll get to cook different foods."

Help is also offered in writing résumés, interviewing skills and job searches.

Participants in Job Corps advance at their own pace, and the work is challenging but bearable with the attention given by counselors, Rebecca said. Nearly 90 percent of graduates find work, go on to higher education programs or enlist in the military.

"It's really like family here," Rebecca said. "I may not get along with everyone, but it is like family."

Job Corps is different now, wrote Khayat, and it is better.

"If you haven't already, take the time to reacquaint yourself with Job Corps," she wrote. "It truly is the future for many of our country's youth."

Rebecca agreed: "If you are looking for something different or if you are not doing good in school, I would recommend this."

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