High school diplomas, GEDs and skills training were just some of the honors accrued by the students being honored.

AFTON – Family, friends, instructors and members of the First Baptist Church of Welch recently gathered in the church’s hospitality area to celebrate the accomplishments of nine young men from the Welch Skills Center. High school diplomas, GEDs and skills training were just some of the honors accrued by the students being honored.

“This is big, guys. This is really big, and we're all here to celebrate this accomplishment in your life,” said Shelly Waller, the acting director of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. “Mistakes happen. What we have to do is focus on what we do with that. It tells us who we will become. Start fresh with a blank page, and start today.”

Waller was one of the guest speakers at the award ceremony, along with Welch Skill Center Director, Twyla Snider. The Welch Skill Center opened in July of 2015, in response to an obvious need in Oklahoma for older youth to be dependent and able to make their own way upon turning 18.

“The target population is males between 16 and 18 years old who, for a variety of reasons, will need to have skills and the ability to be independent by their 18th birthday,” said Snider. “These young men come from all parts of the state and their average stay with us is about seven months.”

The focus of the Welch Skill Center is to provide enrichment and empowerment to the students placed there. This is primarily done through skill acquisition, GED preparation and testing, obtaining proper state identification and studying for a driver’s test.

"I can't say enough positive things about the community of Welch. We wouldn’t be successful without their support,” said Snider. “And the relationship with Northeast Tech has been so good too. It's not often that you have a partner who says, let's sit down and figure it out, and that’s what Mike does.”

Mike Reece is the Adult Education director at Northeast Tech’s Afton Campus, and as a lifelong educator, he jumped at the chance to partner with Snider and her staff at the skill center.

“It just makes sense,” Reece said. “These young men are on their best behavior when they come to us, they are hungry to learn, and we can give them the trade skills that will make them marketable to employers when they leave the skill center.”

After meeting with Snider to determine the students’ training needs, Reece and his staff developed a 48 hour welding program taught by Northeast Tech welding instructor, Corey Winesberg. The students attend class on Northeast Tech’s campus twice a week for three hours each session. At the end of the program, they are eligible to take the welding certification test, and seven of the nine students earned their state welding license.

“I liked learning about welding,” said Anthony Beavers with a laugh. “It was challenging – a few things caught on fire – but I'm happy to have a certification.”

Student Adam Kirby admitted his early plans were to run away from the skill center, but seeing the success of other students changed his plans.

“I ran a lot before, and I was planning to do it again. But then I saw some of the guys working and doing well as welders,” Kirby said. “So I made it my goal to stay and learn. I got my GED, my welding certificate, and because I can work, I’m leaving with money in my pocket.”

The Office of Juvenile Affairs pays tuition and associated costs for the students’ training at Northeast Tech, and both Snider and Reece are hopeful to expand the program into other areas.

“We’re currently offering a course in CNC machining, and several of the students are doing very well in that program too,” Reece said. “Looking ahead, we’d like to offer more certification courses, as well as soft skill training that focuses on life skills like how to tie a tie, create a resume and conduct an interview.”

While many of these students hail from local communities, it is not uncommon for students from Tulsa, Oklahoma City or Tahlequah to find placement at the Welch Skill Center. From Reece’s perspective, that provides an opportunity to strengthen the economy throughout the state.

“These are bright young men, and with the right skill set, they will be valuable employees to businesses in whatever community they settled down in,” Reece said. “It’s a great thing for them to earn a license for a skilled trade – that license will get them on a worksite, because the demand for skilled workers exists before they even step in the door.”