Situated among the bison, elk and white–tailed deer at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, students are learning how to replace fuses, build cabinets, fix water pumps—and make a future for themselves.

Within the 59,020–acre Oklahoma refuge known for mixed grass prairie and glorious vistas is a Job Corps training center. It is one of 125 such centers nationwide. The Treasure Lake Job Corps has been housed on Wichita Mountains Refuge since 1964. TLJC originally was administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but has been transferred to the U.S.Forest Service. The center includes military–style living quarters and a training facility where up to 180 students from across the nation spend 10 months to two years learning a technical trade.

Job Corps is a Department of Labor education/technical training program that annually trains approximately 100,000 students aged 16 and 24. At no cost to them, students can learn a career, earn a high school diploma or equivalent, and find a good job.

The Job Corps curriculum includes hands–on training and on–the–job labor. Last year, Wichita Mountains Refuge and TLJC expanded on that idea. Under the guidance of refuge maintenance supervisor Joe D’Arrigo and TLJC director Scott Prescott, the students were put to work on the refuge where they are housed.

“We’ve always had the students here as a resource, but this is a more formalized effort, an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that we’ve entered into with them,” says Wichita Mountains Refuge manager Tony Booth. “Everywhere you turn you’ll see a Job Corps project, good work done by these students and the many that came before them.”

Booth estimates the students provided 360 hours of labor in a six–week period early last year, and the refuge expects a similar contribution in 2013.

Brandon Prentice, 20, from nearby Lawton, OK, enrolled in TLJC in 2011 and took carpentry classes for 10 months before working at the refuge. Prentice, who joined Job Corps in search of a trade and to complete his high school education, appreciates the experience he’s gotten on the refuge.

“In the classroom, someone’s going to tear it up after you’re done,” he says. “But this is the real deal. It’s like real work, and someone is going to see it.”

TLJC instructors select students in training to become plumbers, carpenters, electricians or painters to work on the refuge, job–shadowing refuge staff on projects.

“I Applaud Them”

Wichita Mountains Refuge maintenance worker Randy Abbe graduated from TLJC in 2000 and was hired by Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, AZ. Abbe says Job Corps was “his last chance to do something.” He returned to Wichita Mountains Refuge six years ago and now finds himself working alongside TLJC students in a mentoring role.

“It’s tough for the students,” he says. “You have to live 24/7 with other students, and I applaud them for deciding to do something with their lives. I volunteered at the refuge and got most of my training there.”

Abbe and other refuge maintenance staff—including D’Arrigo, Mando Fabela, Tim Fischer, Russ Sandry, Mike McKenzie, Billy Jones and Ron Fonvile—have been hosting four TLJC students a week, rotating them in and out according to the projects and students available. The students have repaired a broken water line, refurbished living quarters, painted buildings, repaired fences, restored trails and built a volunteer break room. Refuge staff members closely supervise them while ensuring they gain real–life work experience.

“I just needed a couple of high school credits. I needed a trade,” says Prentice, who is close to completing the program.

Contemplating future employment, he says: “I’ll definitely check with the refuge. It’s a piece of me, I guess. My mom really likes looking at the lake, and my brother keeps asking me where the fish are.”

Nancy Brown is a Service public outreach specialist for Texas/Oklahoma.