The Rapidian

Under construction: Gerald R. Ford Job Corps challenges misconceptions

Underwriting support from:
This 1925 postcard showcases the then newly built South High School building

This 1925 postcard showcases the then newly built South High School building

Everything you know about Job Corps is wrong. Or at least, that’s how one might feel after spending an afternoon with the students and staff at Grand Rapids’ vocational training center. Nearly a century after its original construction, the Gerald R. Ford Job Corps building is getting a makeover, but this historic structure isn’t the only part of the program under construction. As the program continues to gain visibility in Grand Rapids, Job Corps students and staff are correcting community misconceptions. 

Remodeling & Rebuilding

President Ford’s old high school is under renovation. Constructed in 1915, the building originally housed Grand Rapids South High School, President Ford’s alma mater. 

Today, the building houses The Gerald R. Ford Job Corps Center, the Grand Rapids branch of a Department of Labor program offering educational and career training opportunities. Right now, the federal Job Corps program trains more than 100,000 young adults ages 16-24 at 123 centers nationwide.

Thanks to a $20 million award from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, The Gerald R. Ford Job Corps Center is upgrading the inside of the building for a new century, while preserving the historic facade. When the project wraps up in September 2011, students will benefit from new classrooms, new dorms, and a new kitchen. And, while the building is under construction, a few students are already reaping an additional bonus: work-based learning. 20 Job Corps students are currently learning the construction trade by renovating the same building where they and their Job Corps classmates live and study.

According to Gretchen LaHaie, Business Community Liaison and Work-Based Learning Coordinator for Gerald R. Ford Job Corps, this is what Job Corps is all about. 

Rethinking Pathways to Employment

At heart, Job Corps is a program about helping people find and keep jobs.  Students at Job Corps get hands-on training in a trade, and the opportunity to get a high school diploma or a GED if they don’t already have one. But if you think Job Corps is only for those who can’t hack it in a traditional high school environment, think again. 

When I asked her about the typical Job Corps student, LaHaie insisted that diversity is the name of the game: “There are so many different types of students we enroll!” 

She told me about one student who, as a junior in high school, realized he wanted to enter the military: “He was focused on his future, a good student, and had he stayed the course in school he would have done just fine, but he wanted to get to his career faster, so he left high school, came to Job Corps, and finished his high school diploma in three or four months, and by January was enrolled in the military, preparing to deploy in May.”  

Other students, admits LaHaie, haven’t been so focused: “There are students who took a wrong turn in high school, became a parent at a very young age, dropped out, and made bad choices that got them into some trouble. They make a decision to turn their life around and come to Job Corps.”

Some students come from more desperate circumstances: “Sometimes we get students who are homeless, have nowhere to go. A Job Corps admissions counselor just happened to catch them at the homeless shelter, and say ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity to do something with your life,’ and they come in with nothing more than the clothes on their back. And they’re so grateful because now they’re getting three meals a day, a roof over their head, clothes, and an opportunity to get an education and learn a trade.”

Many people don’t realize that Job Corps students come from such diverse backgrounds; most simply assume that Job Corps is the last resort for students who were too badly behaved for more traditional educational avenues. 

“I think some people just assume we’re a collective bunch of bad kids, but that’s not the case at all,” LaHaie explained. 

“Every bag of apples has one that’s bruised. You’ll probably never get a perfect bag. We’re going to have some students who come from very unfortunate situations and bring some baggage with them. But for the most part, all the students in our program made the decision to be here, are committed, want to do what’s right, and appreciate the opportunity to become successful.”

Reconnecting with the Community

Melissa is a Job Corps student studying Culinary Arts. When I met her, she was wearing a hairnet, and hurrying around the kitchen. Melissa came to Job Corps specifically to study her trade, and she’s been at it for almost a year. 

When I asked Melissa how she’d decided to come to Job Corps, she was candid. “That’s a little iffy,” she told me. “I used to be really career focused, and I’m not using this as an excuse, but I went through a bad time when my mom died.” After that, Melissa joined the army, was honorably discharged, and began looking for a job. 

“All I had was a high school diploma, but that really doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore,” she said. A friend told her about Job Corps, and it seemed like a good fit. “At first it was a hard transition, but then I just fell in love with it. It’s been a really good experience; I’ve learned a lot.”

Like many Job Corps students, Melissa’s been out in the community, gaining the experience she needs to be a competitive job applicant. During one event, Melissa says the Job Corps Culinary Arts students served food to all the Grand Rapids Police Officers. They’ve also catered for schools and local church events, and volunteered with the non-profit Kids Food Basket, providing food for elementary students across Grand Rapids. 

“Community service is big here,” Melissa told me. “They teach us that helping out your community, doing your part, it really does make a difference. You might not see it right away, but one person really does make a difference.” 

Job Corps’ commitment to serving the Grand Rapids community is striking. Students volunteer all over the city every week. 

“Just last week we had students over at Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association helping out with Dumpster Day, yesterday we had students flyer the Oakdale neighborhood, tomorrow we’re sending students to do a cleanup project on the corner of Hall St. and Madison Ave. with Lighthouse Communities.” LaHaie told me. “We have a project lined up with MapleCreek Retirement Center in the next couple of weeks. The Child Discovery Center of Grand Rapids has a spaghetti dinner coming up that our students are going to help out with.” 

“Our students are very much out and about, and I just think the more our students get out there and showcase who we are and what we are, people are going to know us better and -- obviously, I’m a little biased, I work here -- but I really believe this is an incredible program.”

LaHaie is confident that the more Grand Rapids sees of Job Corps’ contributions to the community, the more we’ll appreciate what the program and the students have to offer.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.