At career event, Gary West Side alumni say students ‘need to know we care’ - Kaidul

At career event, Gary West Side alumni say students ‘need to know we care’

Regina Pope-Ford meandered through the hallways of West Side Leadership Academy like a student stalling in between classes.

She graduated from the Gary school nearly 40 years ago, returning last week for the school’s third annual Career Day

Regina Pope-Ford meandered through the hallways of West Side Leadership Academy like a student stalling in between classes.

She graduated from the Gary school nearly 40 years ago, returning last week for the school’s third annual Career Day and Job Readiness Fair. As a member of the Gary Alumni Pathway to Students, she helped host the all-day event for 900 current students.

“This is still my school, and I still care about it,” she told me while guiding presenters to their assigned classrooms.

Roughly 90 working professionals showed up to speak to students, offer their career-related expertise, and form mentor-mentee relationships. Nearly all of the presenters were born and raised in Gary. Many of them graduated from West Side, happy to share their “Cougar Pride” with the next generation of teens.

I was invited to speak with students but found myself also wandering the hallways. West Side will be the lone public high school in the city starting next school year. I wanted to get an unescorted sneak peek at the building.

Many of my expectations met me at the door. Outdated amenities. Well-worn lockers and classrooms. A few ceiling tiles missing. Nothing too surprising.

I stop paying attention to those obvious shortcomings when I started eavesdropping into the classrooms. Presenter after presenter preaching to groups of noticeably attentive students. The professionals shared their knowledge. The students listened.

Dozens of career paths were introduced or explained, from agriculture to business to corporate law to public safety. The event was one-stop shopping for students, including 200 or so from Wirt-Emerson High School, which will be closed after this school year.

During the lunch period, Diane Jackson-Chapman, GAPS’ executive director, asked students what they thought so far of the event. One teen said, “I wish I had more time.” Another teen replied, “I learned a lot about what I need to do to become successful.”

Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune

Sharon Chambers, of Gary, is a West Side High School graduate who helped organize the school’s career day event March 29, 2018.

Sharon Chambers, of Gary, is a West Side High School graduate who helped organize the school’s career day event March 29, 2018.

(Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

“The students were thrilled to interact with the volunteers and the career paths they chose,” said Sharon Chambers, a West Side graduate who serves on the GAPS board.

I asked more than a dozen presenters for their reaction to the students’ enthusiasm.

“They asked questions, were engaged, and were very interested in their future. I was proud to be a participant, and I look forward to volunteering every year,” said Katrina Hudson, coordinator of Ivy Tech’s Associate Accelerated Program.

“It was a great experience to come back to my alma mater and share my journey of being an entrepreneur,” said Terry Stanton, a CPA who volunteered time. “The highlight of the event for me was when one of the young men asked me for my contact information.”

Shelice Tolbert, a partner at Tolbert & Tolbert, LLC, in Gary, is a 1993 West Side grad. When GAPS invited her months ago, she began rearranging her schedule.

“I very much enjoy doing career day events because the same type of event had such great influence on me becoming an attorney,” she told me. “Most of the seniors have already been accepted to more than one college or university and they had very insightful questions. I was quite impressed.”

The presenters also discussed business etiquette, how to dress for job interviews, how to find scholarships, and how to balance professional work with personal goals.

“It was an informative and rewarding event not only for the students but for the participants as well,” said Ralynn Crockett, a human resource coordinator for AFCO AvPorts Management, LLC, at Gary/Chicago International Airport.

“The students I came in contact with were eager to learn more about the aviation industry and other career fields within the industry,” said Crockett, a West Side grad.

Adra Young, of Gary, owns Ardannyl, a local company dedicated to putting youngsters back on track. She spoke about being an author in her session, “Publishing for a Profit.”

Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune

Regina Pope-Ford, an assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., is a West Side High School graduate who returns to the Gary school to support its faculty and students.

Regina Pope-Ford, an assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., is a West Side High School graduate who returns to the Gary school to support its faculty and students.

(Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

Many other presenters came from out of town or from out of state, such as Pope-Ford, who’s an assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

“I still care about Gary, just as I still care about this school,” she said.

This attitude stood out to me as I roamed the hallways, watching the interaction between grads and future grads. It will be needed more than ever during the next school year when the building houses programs from two high schools.

“I remember sitting in these classrooms and walking these halls as if it were yesterday,” said 1992 West Side grad Montez Langford Ashley, African-American employment program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

“Many of the students were surprised to learn they could turn their love of the great outdoors into a career,” she said. “It is always amazing to see the light bulb turn on when young people make a career connection.”

Michael McGinnis, a retired Gary firefighter, answered multiple questions from students.

“They are very inquisitive about public safety, not only in Gary but across the country,” he said.

Valerie Wise, a 1968 Emerson High School graduate, is a clinical social worker from Merrillville.

“It was encouraging to see the love we all share for the city of Gary and for the young people who can still have a future within it, and beyond it,” she said. “At the end of the day, each of us planted seeds in the students which can help them as they think about their future.”

Katie Hobgood, from Junior Achievement of Chicago, which co-hosted the event, said she was “blown away” by the number of volunteers.

“The best way to get students on the path to success is to lead them there,” she said.

Arthur Harris, a 1982 West Side grad, owns a cosmetology school in Indianapolis.

“I applaud these kids. They are coming to a school that is not in the best shape but still they show up,” he said. “They need to know we care. They are doing their part. Now it is time for us to do ours. I love West Side and now I have to act like it.”

“I feel totally different from the way I came in here,” he added.

So do I, I replied.

Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune

The Gary Alumni Pathway to Students, or GAPS, co-hosted a career day and job readiness fair March 29, 2018 at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary.

The Gary Alumni Pathway to Students, or GAPS, co-hosted a career day and job readiness fair March 29, 2018 at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary.

(Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

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