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'A gut-punching experience': Blackwell Job Corps students unsure of futures after news of closure Submitted: 06/11/2019
Crandon - After just two months in the Northwoods, Brenda Walton can tell you what it took to build a brick veterans monument outside the Forest County Courthouse in Crandon.

"[I've learned] having a sense of urgency in the workplace is good [when it comes to masonry], but also taking it slow and redoing it," Walton explained.

Walton came to the Blackwell Job Corps from Arkansas as a high school dropout. She decided to study masonry.
"This was my only option," Walton said of getting her high school diploma.

Now, Walton and about 85 fellow Blackwell students, including Denijah Hairston from Virginia, might not have much time left to learn more from a school that gives many troubled kids a second chance in fields like wildfire fighting, construction, and nursing.

"A gut-punching experience, because it was like everything's here, I can do it here and why do you have to take away my opportunities and chances like this out of nowhere?" Hairston said.

Blackwell opened in 1964 and has seen thousands of students between the ages of 16 and 24 learn valuable skills over that time.

The federal government announced late last month it plans to shut down Blackwell and eight other conservation centers around the country through a switch from US Department of Agriculture control to Department of Labor oversight. The USDA runs 25 of the approximately 125 CCCs around the nation.

The Labor department told Newswatch 12 the move would send more students to "higher performing centers" at a lower cost.

"Some of these students come from a place where there's not a lot of stability," Blackwell guidance counselor Lorie Almazan said. "There's not a lot of people that support them. They come to Blackwell and that's what we provide."

In a meeting with Newswatch 12 in Crandon on Tuesday morning, Almazan showed off the plaque Blackwell received just four days after word of the closure came May 24. The award praised the center as a "top performer."

"I mean, I had some more choice words than that," Almazan said of her reaction to the closure. "But I was very confused, but we're sending mixed messages."

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin agrees. The Democrat joined a bi-partisan group of lawmakers to write a letter to the USDA and Department of Labor secretaries asking them to reconsider, given the skills students can learn here. Baldwin followed it up with another letter of her own this week.

"It makes so much sense [to have Blackwell] in the Northwoods of Wisconsin," Baldwin said.

Baldwin also joined Democrats and Republicans to introduce a bill that would prevent the Trump administration from moving forward with the closures.

"What it would do is say, you can't use the very funds that were appropriated to run these programs in order to shut them down," Baldwin said. "I'm going to fight as hard as I can to keep it open."

Blackwell has an operating budget of more than $5 million.  Losing that kind of money in Forest County could devastate much of the area, Forest County economic leader Mark Ferris explained in an earlier interview.

Almazan says the mood at Blackwell isn't positive right now. The 54 full-time staff members, including her husband, have been told to prepare their resumes and plan to have all students out by the end of August. Almazan, who grew up in Chicago, raised her eight-year-old son here after taking the job at Blackwell 17 years ago.

"We would be a household without any income at that point," Almazan said. "We would have no choice but to uproot our family and leave."

Walton was supposed to be in Forest County for another year, getting her diploma after another 14 months of training and education. But facing what can seem like a brick wall in the federal government, she's learning to say goodbye sooner than she ever expected.

"Basically like a family," Walton said of Blackwell. "People you meet there, the things you do with the people there are going to stick with you forever."

The students pointed Newswatch 12 to a website that's coordinating a last-chance effort to save the job centers. You can find that site here.

There may be some further hope: a Montana senator told reporters last week President Trump personally promised to keep his job corps center open.


Written By: Lane Kimble

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