Construction school launches in Aurora

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By Caramie Schnell Petrowsky –

A miter saw buzzes loudly as seven men work together to cut boards in the courtyard of The Salvation Army Aurora (Colo.) Corps Community Center. It’s a sunny Tuesday in November, and the men are building two picnic tables under the watchful eye of Robert McElreavey, the boot camp instructor for the Colorado Construction Institute (CCI). The tables are currently flipped upside down on the ground, but they’ll soon give the facility’s food bank clients a place to sit while they wait in line.

Robert McElreavey (center), the boot camp instructor for the Colorado Construction Institute, checks the work of two of the construction school attendees at The Salvation Army Aurora (Colo.) Corps Community Center.

Robert McElreavey (center), the boot camp instructor for the Colorado Construction Institute, checks the work of two of the construction school attendees at The Salvation Army Aurora (Colo.) Corps Community Center.

It’s the beginning of the men’s fourth week of construction school, a new program Lts. Timothy and Tanya Pemberton launched at the corps in early November.

In just 30 days participants learn construction basics including safety and carpentry tools (a set of which they’ll get to keep upon graduating), as well as professional skills, such as the importance of attendance and punctuality. The goal is to help every student get a job in construction after they graduate. The “pre-apprentice program” even helps them create resumes and secure job interviews.

“We open the door—they just have to step through,” McElreavey said.

Although it’s a pilot program for the corps, the CCI leads similar camps throughout the Denver Metro area, he said. The CCI’s partnership with the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver helps provide a pathway to employment for any graduate interested in the homebuilding industry.

Steve Holmes, left, was one of seven men who took part in the inaugural construction school offered by Colorado Construction Institute at the Salvation Army Aurora Corps Community Center in Aurora.

Steve Holmes, left, was one of seven men who took part in the inaugural construction school offered by Colorado Construction Institute at the Salvation Army Aurora Corps Community Center in Aurora.

According to McElreavey, 98 percent of students find jobs following graduation.

Steve Holmes, a recent graduate of the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Denver, likes those odds. A certified crane operator, Holmes grew “sick of fighting addiction” and worried his drinking would have irreversible effects if he didn’t take action.

“I was driving $100,000 trucks at 70 miles an hour. If I would have made a wrong turn because I still wasn’t right from the night before, I could cause a little damage,” he said, sarcastically.

He hopes to be hired by a company that offers an electrical apprenticeship program.

“If this is the first step [toward that goal], then why not?” he said.

Two of Holmes’ ARC program mates are also taking part in the construction school. The men’s tuition—$3,000 for the four-week program—and bus passes to get to and from the center, were donated by the Regional Transportation District, as part of its development training initiative, according to Tanya Pemberton.

The other four students attend the program on scholarships from the Arapahoe/Douglas Works! Workforce Center.

Lts. Pemberton identified the need for the construction school within a month of being appointed to Aurora last summer. Aurora’s 4.7 percent unemployment rate outpaces the statewide rate of 4.2 percent. Moreover, “there were no bridging programs for the ARC” that offered recent graduates a way to gain employable skills and qualify for jobs that pay a livable wage, outside of fast food restaurants, Tanya Pemberton said.

Lt. Tanya Pemberton and her son Justin at the Salvation Army Aurora Corps Community Center in Aurora. Tanya had the idea for the new construction school at the center, which hosted its first class in November.

Lt. Tanya Pemberton and her son Justin at the Salvation Army Aurora Corps Community Center in Aurora. Tanya had the idea for the new construction school at the center, which hosted its first class in November.

The ARC program is close to the Pembertons’ hearts since Timothy Pemberton graduated from the program nearly a decade ago, thus getting sober and saving the couple’s marriage.

Tanya Pemberton learned about the mobile CCI programs after agreeing to hold an Arapahoe/Douglas Works! job fair at the corps.

“They asked if they could tap into my food bank clients to find people for the school,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s take it bigger. Maybe we can have the school here.’”

The Salvation Army initially declined the idea.

“I had to show them it was a great opportunity,” she said. “They’ve seen the value and offered support. Maybe we can be a test case so we can replicate it in other Salvation Army centers.”

There’s room for 12 people in each program; five women from the ARC are slated to begin the next session. In the meantime, Tanya Pemberton is diligently spreading the word at the other Salvation Army shelters in Denver and doing what she can to connect with current students.

“We provide lunch for them, and once a week I go and eat with them,” she said. “I give the ARC guys a ride home when I can. I look at it as a ministry opportunity.”

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