Interview with John Booker of Angell Job Corps
John Booker is Center Director at the Angell Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center located north of Yachats.
John: Well, if you want me to, I’ll start out telling you something about our program here at the Angell Job Corps.
John: I’ve been with this program—matter of fact, I just got an award for 25 years in with the federal government—for 26 years. I’ve been with several Job Corps Centers here in the nation. I started out at the Ouachita Job Corps in Arkansas. Job Corps is a training program that was started 50 years under Lyndon B. Johnson, and it came out of the CCC program—the Civilian Conservation Corps, that was started during the Depression to help disadvantaged youth all across the nation. There are now 128 centers. 28 of them are federal, although one of them was closed down last year. At Angell, here, we have 168 students. I have six trades: urban forestry, brick masonry, plumbing, basic auto, painting, and carpentry.
TYG: I saw a mural on the back of one of the buildings as we were driving in—it’s beautiful!
John: [smiles] Some of those murals were painted years ago by the students. We just had a meeting with the Department of Labor; we’re trying to bring our culinary arts back online. They did approve that program to come back into play—now the paperwork is in Washington. Just a matter of time! We have a Community Relations Council, and through the community, they helped us and wrote some letters to bring that back online.
TYG-Graphic Design: Do you identify more with Waldport, or Yachats?
John: We identify from Yachats all the way up to Lincoln City—we do work from there all the way down. If it’s a non-profit organization, we can do [work for] it. Also, the community can hire students to do some things, as long as it’s not violating safety standards: they can’t do roofing, go too high up on ladders, that sort of thing. We call this work-based learning, and a lot of the community come out and hire them on weekends. And then we have work-based learning sites in the community, where students go out during the week, and work.
TYG-GD: Like on the trails?
John: They do that; we have a student working in the Cape Perpetua office; we have students working in Les Schwab—all over. That’s part of their training here. The ones that qualify are the ones close to graduation. We have graduation once a month; we normally graduate ten to twelve students a month. We place them on jobs, help them with their résumés. Areas we seek are from Washington, Oregon, some California, Idaho—that’s where our kids come in from. We can hold up to 210 students here, but right now my on-board strength is 155. We try to stay up to 160 or 170. Once we bring the culinary arts back on-line, six of our slots will be ACT slots—those are college slots. Tina Terrell, the regional director, just came in for a meeting with Oregon State University—we’re trying to set up a program with OSU for our students to go into. They can get a two-year college program, or they can get a four-year with the aquatics program. So, we try to open up doors for our students. We have students go into the military at least once or twice a month—we have students enroll in the Navy, and they come out and talk to our students. Other centers have advanced training programs, like Clearfield, Utah. We just have the basics, but our students can put in applications and apply to other programs. I had a student transfer last month, going to Clearfield. They have to interview, be a student in good standing; they have to have a certain education score or level to qualify. It’s pretty much the same thing when they apply to get in here—they have to have a copy of their health records, make sure they’re drug-free, and have a copy of their behavior record. They don’t just take any student. You have to be performing at a high level to get into those programs.
TYG-GD: What’s the range of the student ages?
John: The range here is from 16 to 24. They can be here until they’re 26 or 27—if they come in before their 25th birthday, they have two years to complete the program. That also [applies] if they want to go to advanced training.
TYG-Editorial Assistant: How would a student typically end up in Job Corps?
John: We have a recruiting program called DESI [Dynamic Educational Systems, Inc.] that does all the recruiting for the Job Corps in this region—we’re in the San Francisco region. Students go in and put in an application, [and talk to] an Outreach Admissions Counselor—sometimes they have their offices in the unemployment offices. They do a background check on the student, and the student tells them if he has IEPs [individualized education programs], special needs, or [requires] some kind of accommodation. Here, in the program, we have a contract with a mental health professional, we have a contract with a TEAP [trainee employee assistance program]—a TEAP is a drug and alcohol person. If the student has issues, we set them up with counseling; if they have an issue with smoking—in the state of Oregon, minors aren’t allowed to smoke—we [set them up] with a doctor so they can get patches or gum to help them out. Some parents let them smoke, but here they’re not allowed to smoke. Sometimes we catch them and hold them accountable: they get written up, have to do extra hours, they get a fine, stuff like that.
TYG-GD: So are the parents typically very involved with the kids?
John: Yes, most of them. We have students here who are homeless and don’t have any support from their parents. We have students who come out of the military and don’t want to go to college, and they take advantage of the programs. [The Job Corps] is for disadvantaged youth. They base it on your income.
TYG-EA: So there’s a cost to students sometimes?
John: No cost at all. It costs the government anywhere from $30,000 to $32,000 to stay here a year. The only thing that’s required of a student is to go to work. The government invests in the student; they make $1.86 for every dollar that they invest in. If the student [doesn’t go to work], we end up paying for them because they’re a detriment to society, so we pay for them one way or another. But if they become tax payers...
John: And here, with our federal centers, our students have a lot of opportunity. We have camp crews for our fire teams. We’re also getting ready to hire a FMAO, which is what we call the head of our fire program—we’ve just been approved to start a student fire team. They have to be eighteen and older to get on the student fire team. So students have a lot of options. Even when they go out on the camp crews, they make a lot of money. I have students sometimes leave here with $5,000, $6,000 by going out. That’s good, because when they graduate, that helps them get a start, get a job. They can put a down deposit on an apartment. Because what we call re-adjustment... If they come here without a high school diploma, they get $250 for getting a high school diploma, they get $250 for completing the vocational training. So if a student lives here a year, and they take taxes out, they make about $1,000 for what we call re-adjustment. So after they graduate, they get a re-adjustment pay. That’s just to help them with a deposit and to get started. But a lot of times we try to help them have a job before they leave here.
TYG: Backing up a little, can I assume that FMAO means Fire Management and Operations?
John: There you go! You got it! [laughs] You’re pretty sharp! That’s a good program. Some students get interested in fire-fighting, and they can go to Boise, Idaho, to the fire school, and become a fire-fighter. Once they go to that school, they become “hot-shots.” Those are the first ones on the scene, they parachute out of the planes, they’re the ones that try to contain the fire once it gets started.
TYG-GD: Exciting but deadly!
John: Yes, it is. They automatically start out making $70,000 a year—it’s a great job.
TYG-GD: I bet that takes a special kind of personality!
John: Yes. You have to be in shape.
TYG-EA: And an adrenaline junkie!
John: I’m telling you, it’s a tough school! I’ve gone there and I’ve seen the things they go through. I think I could have done it when I was younger, but... When I got in Job Corps I used to go out fire-fighting. Basically what we did was fire support. We help put the fire lines around the fire to help contain it, do mop-ups after the fire’s gone through, try to make sure the fire’s out, work on the injury crew... There’s so much that goes on in a fire. California probably has the biggest budget for its fire-fighting from the government. You may not know, but every year it’s a challenge to stay above because of the budget cuts through all the federal programs. Job Corps has taken some cuts too. Every year there’s something different coming out. You know, we used to pay for our students to go home twice a year, at summer break and winter break. This year the Department of Labor decided they won’t have any more summer breaks. It doesn’t mean they can’t—they have to use their annual leave to go. And that’s a big thing: we fly them home, we charter buses; they normally leave here around June 27, and come back July the 8th or somewhere around there. But that’s no longer going to happen.
TYG-GD: Do you use a lot of community volunteers here?
John: Yes! I used to have three volunteers, but now I only have two. The people who come in fill out a volunteer form. If somebody wants to volunteer in education, or volunteer to tutor, we’ve had a number of people do that. We also take our students to the numeracy and literacy program in Waldport. [...]
When I first got here, we were ranked 118 [out of 126] in the nation—we weren’t doing very well. Now, I’m ranked 86! I got hired here in June of 2014—I was short 15 staff members. I had to be creative.
TYG-EA: There are not a lot of people around here to be hired!
John: No. What I do, is I’m very creative. I use every resource—I use contracting. [...] Right now, I’m having a hard time finding a nurse—we’ve been without a nurse for three years. I’ve got a young lady just out of school contracted to hire. But the thing that hurts is when I have a veteran say they want the job, then turn around—they go through the background check, they take the tests, then all of a sudden they say “Well, I changed my mind.” That has happened to me three times. [...] It’s tough in this area—it’s a retirement community. I have a hard time recruiting young people; if they’re not married, it’s hard to keep them here. And if they’re young, and married, after they’ve been here a couple of years, there’s not much for them to do! They’ve got to take their kids to Portland if they want some kinds of recreation, and that kind of gets old!
TYG-EA: We have a similar problem retaining young professionals in medicine around here.
John: I even talked to the head of the nursing school here out there at the college—they also have a hard time. But, you know, I do a lot of praying. I don’t worry about it. I’ll just ask God. I don’t mean to be preaching to you—I pray, and I leave it in the hands of the Lord. And by His grace, that’s why we continue to be successful and move forward. We had some things here that weren’t working, and now they’re starting to work. We had some people here... they’re retired now. All I expect is for people to work. We wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for the students. And if they’re not providing the students with the services that are expected from us, and treating them the way they need to be treated... Because [the students] come here broken, and we help pick them up, and give them the confidence that they can go on and be successful.
TYG-EA: Is that a fairly typical profile, some young person who’s had problems?
John: Yes. Basically, let me tell you the kind of student we get.
I was very popular at school, so I didn’t get bullied. But I didn’t like bullies, because when I was coming up in the first, second grade, I was bullied—a lot. Then I started growing up. I grew up in the projects [in Arkansas], and you either have to fight, or run. So finally, when I started growing up, I was popular. I was good at sports, so mainly I didn’t have many problems then, because people didn’t mess with me. I had this chip on my shoulder, so I learned how to protect myself pretty well. And I just developed this attitude, I didn’t like bullies, so I never allowed bullying in front of me. I stepped in. To this day, I don’t like bullies.
And basically, the kids we get [here] are the ones that are bullied—they don’t dress like everybody, [that kind of thing]. And I saw that. My mom was a single mom, raised four kids and her two brothers, worked two jobs, very strict mom. And by the grace of God, my two brothers went into the military, I got a football scholarship, my sister went into the medical [field] and works at a hospital in Memphis. And my uncles, they all went into the military. But my mom was pretty strict, and she was a strong woman, working two jobs. Matter of fact, I didn’t even know we were that poor. Every year we started out with five outfits. Everybody went to school, you had your five outfits, and then she would add on a little bit here and there as she could. And every Saturday, we ironed our stuff and made sure we were ready to go to school. Because she was never home by the time we got ready to go to school. So we had to make sure we were ready. That’s why, pretty much, I learned how to cook—she was going to night school, so she would write down all the directions and I was the oldest, so I had to prepare the meals. And I love to cook to this day! And it became a habit to learn how to do things—she would just write down the directions and I would do it. I was the head of the household while she was out. [...] But my mom always prepared us, and told us, “When you become a senior, you’d better have a plan, because you can’t stay here—you have to [leave].” She raised me, not somebody she had to take care of. She raised us to be leaders. And I just carried on with my kids.
TYG-GD: So, did you leave the house when you were 18, or whenever?
John: Yes, as soon as I graduated from high school, I went straight into college on a football scholarship at the University of Kansas. I was there for five years. And I was blessed from there, you know. I was wanting to go pro, but I got hurt my senior year, and that wasn’t what God had planned for me.
TYG-EA: How did you end up doing this?
John: When I got out of college, I ended up as a manager for Wendy’s, and I hated it. It wasn’t a challenge. And then I got a job at Kmart in Kansas City in Missouri, at a S. S. Kresge’s—that’s what Kmart originated from. And then I got promoted to another store, [but] then they started having cut-backs. Last hired, first to go. So me and my wife and family, we moved back to Arkansas. I didn’t work for a while, but then unemployment started running out. So I went to my principal, who was Secretary of State, and told him I needed a job, so he hired me as State Capitol police officer. And Clinton was governor at that time. I used to talk to Clinton like I’m sitting here talking to you. He was a workaholic and worked late—I worked the night shift from ten at night until six in the morning. And he was always around the building at that time, with his bodyguards—he would be there till two or three in the morning. Then he’d turn around and you’d see him jogging at six in the morning! And I thought, “Man, this guy—does he ever sleep?” [laughs]
TYG-EA: I hear he was big on a nap around four in the afternoon...
John: I don’t know what he did in the afternoons, but he was always there! He was a good governor, no matter what they want to say. He was very helpful to me. I left the State Capitol and went to the highway police because of him.
TYG-GD: Did you go through officer training?
John: Well, I flunked the first test, and I was going to go back [to retake it] in three months... but in the meantime, I ran into a gentleman who was hiring for federal jobs at a Job Corps. And I used to think Job Corps was a waste of money, because I grew up in a city where Job Corps was there, and I just didn’t think it was worth the money until I volunteered. He asked me to volunteer, so I came out and volunteered for a couple of months. And I started seeing what it was really about: those kids weren’t any different from me. They were needing a chance. I got hooked on it, and I started weighing the odds: in the long run, am I going to have more retirement and make more money working for the State, or [the federal government]? So I didn’t go back [to the police academy]. So I got hired with the federal government, and I’ve been with it ever since. It’s been a blessing. I’ve had to move several times—I started out in Arkansas, went to Kentucky, went to Tennessee, to Wisconsin, back to Arkansas, Nebraska, Washington, back to Nebraska, then I came up here. So my kids grew up in Job Corps. My oldest son works at a federal prison in Kentucky. Last year he got his doctorate. He had a minor in criminal justice, and his master’s in business, and I don’t remember what he told me his doctorate was in. [laughs] He just told me I have to call him Dr. Booker. My other son is over in the Air Force in England, in Lakenheath. He’s about to get his degree, and is about ready to get out of the military and come back to the States. And my daughter, she’s here. And my wife—we’ve been together since high school—she’s my high-school sweetheart. I was in the tenth grade, and she was in the eighth. The first time I ever saw her, I thought about marriage. I don’t even know why. [laughter] It just went and popped into my head. She was this little itty bitty petite thing, and she’d just moved in from Chicago, and all these guys were trying to talk to her. Well, I wasn’t going to jump in line because I was a cocky athlete, you know. We didn’t too much like each other at first, because I thought I was The Rock, I wasn’t going to chase her... and then when I started liking her, she wouldn’t give me the time of day, and then when she started liking me, I gave her the cold shoulder! [laughter] But then we ended up together. [...] She hung in there and waited till I graduated from college. We had my son before I graduated, and we started a family, and I worked in the summertime. I was blessed. I’ve had a very good wife—I couldn’t have asked the Lord for a better spouse, and she’s a great mother. And honestly, I prayed for that. You’d be surprised—everything I’ve asked the Lord for, I’ve gotten. I asked for a scholarship, I got that. I asked for a good mother and a good wife, I got that. I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for Him. I don’t mean to be preaching, but I’m just testifying how my life has gone. And I wasn’t a perfect person, you know. It took me God opening doors and showing me things. And I used to wonder: “I’m constantly blessed, and I don’t even know if I deserve these things.” But he’s always blessed me. And then you get to a point, and wow. I need to change my life, I need to live more like Jesus. When you get older, you start to realize some things. Sometimes He lets you go, and then He brings you back. My mom kept us in the church. She instilled that in us. She always told us: “You can’t get anywhere without having God in your life.” In her house, she didn’t force you to go to church. But if you didn’t go to church, you couldn’t go hang out and play—you had to clean. So you better go to church. [laughter] You know, it’d be nice and sunny, and you had to stay in the house, cleaning. She didn’t wake you up... you had a choice. And if you didn’t miss Sunday School, and you went to church, they would give you a scholarship after you graduated if you were going to go to college or not. They gave out those things. I’ve had a blessed life—I wouldn’t trade it for all the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through.
Job Corps has been good to me. I never had gone camping till I started working with Job Corps. The students taught me how to camp, taught me how to cross-country ski, how to ice fish. I was a recreation supervisor, and all these things I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t even know how to put a tent together until I started working with Job Corps. My wife is a volunteer, so she and my kids would follow behind us when I took kids out camping and hiking and stuff. So my kids pretty much grew up with Job Corps. I introduced those things to them: camping, and hiking and fishing, so they had the background that I didn’t have. I didn’t have a father figure—he wasn’t in my life. He’s more in my grandkids’ life than he was in my life. It took him a while to realize... now he’s preaching. A lot of my problems when I was growing up were anger, toward him. But I had a pastor tell me, “Why? You turned out to be a good person, so that’s just negative energy wasted!” So it took me becoming an adult, in my late thirties, to get over my anger and move forward. My grandparents were more in my life—my dad’s mom and dad. I spent my summers on the farm with my grandparents.
TYG-GD: In Arkansas?
John: Yes. They raised everything on the farm, and they taught us how to fish. My grandmother was Blackfoot—she would take me out to the woods and talk about things. I wish I’d paid more attention, because her dad was a medicine man, and she would tell me stuff.
TYG-GD: I bet that was fascinating!
John: It was, but I didn’t... She was eating this dirt, one time, for her blood pressure...
TYG-EA: Did you say, “eating this dirt”?
John: Some kind of dirt, she was eating. And I’m like, “Big Mama, why?” and she said, “This is for my blood pressure.” And I’m like, “Okay...” [laughter] I wish I had paid more attention to the things she was showing me. She told me they were real poor, coming up, and she told me she had to make meals out of certain things for my dad and them. They used to travel around Arkansas making money, and over the years, they ended up buying sixty-some acres. They got it fixed in the family to where it can’t be resold outside the family. They traveled around Arkansas picking soybeans, picking cotton, different things. And when I got older, I never had seen cotton before I walked out into a cotton field and felt that thing. I don’t know how they did that. Those are very sharp things that you pick cotton from. And I thought, “Wow, my grandparents and them went through all this. I don’t know if I could have done that.” But that’s how they bought all those acres around them, five acres, ten acres... My grandfather was 98 when he died, my grandmother was 72 when she died. And his mother was 101 when she died, so I got to see my great-great-grandmother. I was always scared of old people, for some reason, back in those days.
TYG: I know the feeling, seriously.
John: I don’t know why, as a young kid, I was.
TYG: I guess maybe it feels unnatural—in nature no human would live past 40, of course.
John: Right. But you know, that’s a little bit about myself. Job Corps has been good, I love what I do. I love being able to make a difference in these kids’ life. Because they’re no different than me when I was growing up.
John Booker’s interview will conclude in Issue 55.