Chris Hernandez, YARA lead instructor and LiUna labor union member.

By Gladys B. Vargas

Without an in-company family legacy or unpaid internship experience, it can be hard for children of migrant and low-income families to start a career, let alone get past a long list of applicants waiting to be interviewed for a popular position. But for the past couple of years and now, the Youth Apprenticeship Readiness Accelerator program in Oxnard and Ventura continues to challenge the career obstacles youth face.

“What we wanted to do is, eliminate barriers and provide an entry career into the trades by aligning state, federal, and private agencies, workforce development efforts” Chris Hernandez, YARA lead instructor and LiUna labor union member, said to VIDA Newspaper.

The program was founded by Hernandez, Jennifer Lopez of the California Police Activities League, and Anthony Morales, the business director for the Labor’s Union, according to Hernandez. Youth ages 16-24 can apply to take part in the three days a week, 12-week program that runs three times a year.

Hernandez said participants are taught general construction over the course of the program, through classes ranging in topics from math to the history of the American worker. Students work together on projects, are provided with three meals a day and an equipped toolbelt. Instead of paying for a summe camp or working a minimum wage food service job, participants also receive a $1500 stipend, to spend or save at their discretion.

Once they graduate the program, they are automatically bumped to the top of the interview list for union membership and contract employment out to real construction jobs.

The YARA program made partnerships with labor union LiUna, Goodwill Industries, the Oxnard City Corps, and was hugely supported in seed funding from Oxnard Mayor John Zaragoza and the city of Oxnard, Hernandez said. They’ve been able to use classroom space from Oxnard College as well coordinating with the school to help participants work toward Associates or four-year degrees. Degrees can help with specific construction professions that students are already aiming toward, like “geographical information systems, where you can map out areas within the construction industry,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez joined the union in 2017, he said, and building out this type of program was a natural next step since he was already involved in projects supporting youth, such as running toy drives and building little libraries.

The cycle of community support, investment and growth is not only evident in the foundational history of the program, but in their contributions to local community events. YARA has participants volunteering their labor for the haunted house experience the Oxnard Performing Arts Center hosted last month.

“I feel like this is the beauty of living in a small community,” Carolyn Mullin, Executive Director of the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, said to VIDA Newspaper. She helped set up the connection between the organizations, after a volunteer brought up the idea to partner with LiUna. “You kind of stumble upon people, or remember ‘oh yeah, that organization does x y and z!’ [LiUna] are such great partners in the city of Oxnard, and it’s just nice to see the community-give-back component to what they do,” Mullin said. “This is definitely a labor of love.”

Besides help with college and apprenticeship into union, family members have been excited to see their kids busy and earning money, Hernandez said, and many of them were emotional on the first cohort’s graduation day.

“I mean, you can just see it from the moment we had our first graduation,” Hernandez said, because one student’s “grandpa come up to me crying, saying that his grandson was currently lost. He didn’t have any guidance, and he’s seen the difference that the program provided him. And he was excited for the opportunities that we’re going to get his grandson.”

The participants are always voluntary, and always excited about the program, according to Hernandez, who said attendance is never an issue.

“These two kids drove together, they carpooled. And then one week, they showed up with no car, and they showed up on skateboards,” Hernandez said. “The next week, they showed up on bikes. The following week, they came walking…so these kids are really trying to find their way out, and they’re really dedicated, and they’re doing this on their own.”

Oscar Villafaña is a member of the inaugural cohort who graduated the YARA program, and is currently working as an entry level clean up carpenter on real jobs until he can get hired into LiUna’s apprenticeship “bootcamp,” which lasts two years. Union agent Alex Mireles has helped Oscar with getting set up at the union and sent out to jobs, and said the experience has been good. He is sure Oscar will “excel.”

Hernandez is working on further spreading the program throughout the state, to Santa Paula and Santa Barbara. Applications are open currently for Oxnard, Ventura, and Rancho Cordova up in Sacramento.

“What we’re doing here is actually working…It’s making an impact in a positive way for these kids,” Hernandez said, “I just hope that we can continue to uplift our communities.”