DEVENS — With the enthusiastic support of friends and relatives, young women and men celebrated their successful completion at Shriver Job Corps.
Speakers congratulated the graduates and gave them words of encouragement Friday. The graduation was one of two held each year.
“It all starts here,” said Nicholas Houllahan from the Student Government Association. “This is the biggest step for the rest of your life.”
“Without a doubt, I see us using our skills to the fullest,” said Valedictorian Gregory Green.
“Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something,” said Eric Ramos, a Shriver graduate.
“I chose to fight my way out of poverty. You can too,” said speaker Eladia Romero. She works for Rep. Jim McGovern and said she was the first in her family to graduate from both high school and college.
Shriver, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, aims to prepare low-income youth for a career. The school is one of 125 centers across the country and can accommodate 300 students.
Most live there. None pay for this education. You may have seen some of these students out in the community, volunteering for local organizations.
Job Corps provides hands-on career training in a variety of areas. Students who have not completed high school can earn a diploma or HiSET, a Massachusetts high school equivalency.
Shriver also teaches the soft skills needed to get and hold a job, said Bob Campbell, business community liaison. Students learn time management, how to dress and how to interact with others.
These soft skills are important. If a student loses a job, it is more likely because of poor soft skills, not lack of technical knowledge, said Center Director Jennifer O’Neal.
Students learned better conversational skills after the cafeteria was set up with family-style seating. Now they can talk to everyone at the table, rather than the person sitting across from them. “It’s very, very cool,” she said.
Most students remain around nine months, but can remain for as long as two years, said Lisa Coy, outreach, admissions and career transition services director.
Except for a two-week closure, school is in session all year long. Even then, the school remains open for the students who cannot go home.
Students range from 16 to 24 and need to meet income requirements or have a documented disability.
The goal is to get students ready for the next stage of their life journey. Military service, full-time employment, college or further specialized training are all possibilities for the graduates.
The vast majority of graduates, 91 percent obtain full-time employment, Coy said. Three quarters of them are employed a year after graduation.
Job Corps graduates have a special opportunity. They are eligible for advanced training at any of the centers. Shriver offers Transportation Communications Union and Advanced Computer Technologies. Other centers have different specialties.
Shriver plans its programs to benefit local students and youth from its entire service region, which includes the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A dual-enrollment program with Lowell High School allows Lowell students to complete their high school coursework at Shriver and graduate with a diploma from Lowell.
The center is always looking for new students. Of the 300 seats available, 28 are reserved for non-residents. They might be young parents who need to be home with their children at night or might be living in a shelter.
Shriver sends a van to Fitchburg, Leominster and Lowell to pick up the day students who do not have access to a car.
The center is especially interested in recruiting more women and more non-residential students, Coy said. There is a short wait list for male residential students.
On a recent spring day, the center hosted a lunch for its Community Relations Council. The quarterly meetings are mandated by the government and provide an opportunity for the center to interact with local businesses.
Fitchburg’s Mayor Steven DiNatale was there; students intern at his office. There, they answer phones, greet people and do clerical work.
“It helps them open up,” DiNatale said. “It teaches them to get along with other people.”
The lunch provided an opportunity for the culinary department to shine. Students prepared and served a meal suited to the finest of restaurants.
Bruschetta was followed by a salad with greens and berries. Then it was on to baked chicken with a rich sauce, green beans and twice-baked potato.
If that wasn’t enough, not one, but two desserts, a chocolate-hazelnut mousse and frozen white chocolate mousse topped the meal off. Then the guests made their way outside for a photo on the well-maintained grounds.
While outside, Coy took time to talk to a young man who was visiting. The high school graduate wanted to go to culinary school, but could not afford the tuition, she said later. Job Corps might be a good opportunity for him.
Perhaps he too will someday take part in a beloved graduation ritual at Shriver. Just before graduates turn their tassels from one side of the graduation cap to the other, they give a rose to the person who is most significant in their lives.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.