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By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

DEVENS — Samantha DiRusso knows succeeding in life starts with being honest with herself.

“The other day, I came in with the biggest chip on my shoulder,” DiRusso said about the office-administration class she takes at Shriver Job Corps on Jackson Street. The teacher quickly made her aware how she was behaving.

“She tells it like it is,” DiRusso said.

The teacher’s tough love and words of encouragement is what kept the 21-year-old former drug user from Leominster stay focused since her enrollment in the program last August. Having been fired from a fast-food job months earlier, DiRusso arrived with nothing to lose but the will to turn her life around. This March, she will celebrate one year of sobriety with a plan to enroll in college and become an EMT.

“I really feel the Job Corps gave me a second life,” DiRusso said yesterday after sharing her story with the crowd gathering to dedicate the memorial that the Center students built in honor of Job Corps founder Sargent Shriver.

Center Director Tscherina Telesfor believes DiRusso’s and other students’ success stories are a testament to Shriver’s effort to lift millions of Americans out of poverty and the center staff who tries to implement his philosophies every day. Now that such words as “motivate” and “advocate” are engraved on stone tiles that make up part of the memorial concourse, Telesfor hopes it will help students become even more motivated.

“We can keep his legacy and embed” it in everyday life at the center, Telesfor said.

A little more than a year after Shriver’s death, the local Job Corps, named after the legendary public servant, celebrated his legacy by dedicating a memorial to him yesterday. Comprised of two stone benches with Shriver’s name inscribed on one of them, the memorial graces the entrance to the center’s courtyard. The 12 students in the Center’s cement and masonry class who built the memorial proudly stood behind it while two other students sang the national anthem, followed by DiRusso’s speech.

DiRusso and Victor Perez, former Shriver Job Corps student who now works there as a medical assistant, both said the faculty and staff members’ positive attitude toward life is contagious to the students around them.

“Everyone here works (together) as a family,” Perez said. “They communicate with each other and listen to each other. It’s a joyful spirit.”

Paid for by the federal Department of Labor, Job Corps is a vocational training program that provides free education and a place to live for those ages 16 to 24 who meet certain criteria. Students are fed on campus and transportation is provided free to those living off campus. All students receive a small stipend every two weeks. The local program has 300 students enrolled.

Perez enrolled in the program at 19 in December 2007. Having graduated from high school with no specific goals to pursue, he was working at a laundromat in his hometown of Fitchburg when he decided do more with his life. But in February 2008, he was diagnosed with leukemia and would take a year off from the Job Corps. But the bond he felt with Job Corps teachers and students and their enthusiasm for improving themselves kept him going through the illness, said Perez, who says his leukemia is now in remission.

“Regardless of what you have, move forward,” Perez said as he shared his story with the crowd during the ceremony.

MassDevelopment CEO Marty Jones said enthusiasm is one of the words to describe Shriver’s spirit. He also knew those who crusade for a cause must be patient because the world doesn’t change overnight, Jones said. Saying the employees and students of the Job Corps contribute to Devens as a community, Jones noted she hopes the “Shriver spirits will expand in Devens.”

Telesfor said 65 percent of students work outside the campus. Many land permanent jobs, too, but there can be some unsuccessful job interviews along the way. The faculty and staff try to teach them not to focus on their failure and how to “pick up and move on.”

“The Job Corps is great for students who need help and want the help,” DiRusso said.