Special to The Dallas Examiner
The word “veteran” is typically used to describe someone with a great deal of experience in a certain area; someone who has earned their stripes; someone to be trusted and well-respected by others. The same holds true for our nation’s military veterans, for their sacrifice to ensure our freedom is often regarded as the ultimate act of selflessness. So, it may be troubling to learn that life after service is less than ideal for many of the men and women within this esteemed group.
Many veterans return home from service only to enter a new and unforeseen battle: acclimating to civilian life, which often reveals the unfortunate truth of scarce work, unsteady pay, and even homelessness. It’s a bleak outlook that Dallas County Community College District is working to stop this from becoming reality for these “forgotten heroes”.
“These are people who have been kind of left behind by society,” said Nick Graff, DCCCD’s executive director of advanced technology manufacturing centers. “Their perseverance is the true story to me.”
Led by Mark Hays, the district’s vice chancellor of workforce and economic development, work began last November. The goal: develop a program that equips veterans with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the welding field. A deal was soon reached with Homeless Veterans Services of Dallas Inc., a nonprofit organization which runs the Veterans Resource Center, providing meals, clothes, and the all-important help with finding employment. The VRC is also home to a converted welding shop that, with the right equipment, promised to be an important component of this budding partnership.
“Anything that our district can do to help them, that is what our job is. We are stewards of our taxpayers,” Graff said.
Inspired to help, Graff got to work. Soon, several industry leading companies were onboard, lending their support. Among others, there was a plasma cutter from Hypertherm and $10,000 per year in funding from Airgas. The program was starting to take shape. Today, the space includes a 10-booth welding lab, machines, gas tanks, raw materials, and the shop’s crown jewel, a plasma cutter. WorkReadyU, the district’s adult education program, financed the tuition and curriculum, which includes 160 hours of instruction through classes and support. The only thing missing? Students. And they didn’t need much persuasion. There’s the chance for a fresh start, independence, and a trade which boasts a starting salary of approximately $29,400.
“Considering all of the sacrifices they have made for us, this class is not repayment, but it is certainly a start,” Graff said.
What once started as a mere vision, quickly became a fully functioning program by the end of February, complete with seven students who deserve this opportunity the most. Things were finally beginning to fall into place, then COVID-19 happened. And while the pandemic disrupted life for many, it was no match for the will and drive of these veterans.
“They are pretty much taking the initiative to get their own education,” Graff said.
The welding shop has remained open, and learning has simply taken on a new look.
“It’s all hands-on learning and I’ll instruct virtually,” said Byron Zarrabi, DCCCD’s assistant director of workforce development, who also serves as the program’s instructor. “Videos, phone calls, messages, etc. Whatever it takes.”
Under the new procedure, one student is selected to oversee the group, physically leading the class through instruction, while sending pictures and feedback to Zarrabi, who admits there are drawbacks to this new normal.
“I miss that light in their eyes that pops on when you tell them they’ve done something right,” Zarrabi said. “But these folks have been through so much, and they are so appreciative of what you’re doing for them. That’s what leads to personal gratification.”
The seven students are on track to complete the program in June and will be introduced to prospective employers, closing the chapter of one journey and beginning another. Now well-equipped to begin new life, this group of heroes vow never to be “forgotten” again.
David Fallavollita, DCCCD manager of public information, contributed to this report.