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 group home receives referrals from the Office of Juvenile Affairs, many of which have very limited resources and options for the future before coming to the Skill Center.
“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 Twyla Snider, Director of Welch Skills Center and Craig County Regional Juvenile Detention Center. “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, as well as participating in community activities, enrichment activities and individual and group counseling.
“Our success has been largely due to the community of Welch,” said Snider. “While not every citizen was eager to see us in their neighborhood, by and large, ‘Welchkins’ have opened their hearts and minds to the Skill Center. Our residents attend local church on Sundays, fish in a local land owner’s pond and were showered with Christmas gifts last year. We are grateful for the community helping these young men see what support and encouragement of a community and family look like.”
The community of Welch isn’t the only thing helping these young men find their place. Welch Skill Center also benefits from a healthy relationship with Northeast Technology Center’s Afton Campus. The Office of Juvenile Affairs pays tuition and associated cost to NTC. In return, the students are able to travel the 17 miles from the center to NTC’s campus to attend training courses designed especially for them.
“This has worked out really smooth from both ends,” said Mike Reece, Afton Campus Adult Education Director. “The State Department met with us. Instead of just having these boys locked in, they really wanted training opportunities for them. We have the facilities and access to instructors and they have the funding, so together we created a very flexible training program. The classes run year round and we try to get them through as many of the trainings as we can before they leave.”
“We have created an awesome partnership,” said Snider. “If I’m being honest, I’m not sure this could have happened anywhere else in the state. Having a willing tech center near a group home is such a blessing. Mike has been absolutely wonderful to work with. I basically tell him how many students we have and what we need and he just makes it happen.”
The classes are held in the morning during the summer and in the evening during NTC’s regular school year. There are approximately six or seven students per class and they travel with one or two supervisors, sometimes up to three days a week. The classes available to the Skill Center residents are Basic Electricity I and II, Basic Welding I and II, Plant/Facility Maintenance Technician, Introduction to Computers and Heat and Air Conditioning I and II.
“The successful completion of vocational training has been an important part of program development,” said Snider. “Upon opening, it was never envisioned that all students would attend Northeast Tech. Now we have this great partnership. It’s hard to say you’re successful after just one year, but at this point, every student has received a certificate.”
The instructors also report that the students are attentive and hard working.
“This is a great group of boys,” said Welding Instructor Justin Lawson. “I’m very proud to be a part of this program and look forward to celebrating many future positive accomplishments with these students.”
“The kids seem to really enjoy it,” said Reece. “They see it as a reward to be able to come out here and work. They have great attitudes. We get them set up with welding kits that include their helmets, shirts and work boots. When you give them the tools they need, they take it a little more seriously. They also have great supervisors who really help hold the students accountable. This has been a very rewarding program. We have definitely enjoyed it.”
Snider says the next step is to actually help all the students who leave the facility find a job where they can put their training to use.
“Many of these students come from Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Tahlequah or other cities across Oklahoma,” said Snider. “If they leave us and go back to where they came from, with the same circumstances – no home, no transportation, no encouragement – then they may fall back into a troubled situation. Because most of these students do not stay here in this area, we definitely need more partnerships statewide; perhaps with individuals, businesses or other tech centers. But a year from now our goal is to also be helping them more with job placement to make sure they can all continue to be successful.”
In what Snider calls a “best case scenario,” one student completed the welding class, received his certification from the State Department of Labor and began working while he was still a resident. He had $2,800 in his pocket upon being released from the center and had developed a relationship with a family in Welch who took him in after his release.
“This is what we love to see,” said Snider. “Not only did he get a skill and a job, but he had more money than most of these kids have ever seen. And even more important than that, he got a family. It was a perfect scenario. That’s what we want for everyone who comes through our door.”