AMIkids Rio Grande Valley is a one-of-a-kind program rehabilitating young felons. At the same time, it gives them the chance to become certified welders. The program has been in operation in eastern Cameron County for quite some time.
AMIkids Rio Grande Valley is the only one in the Lone Star State and one of 44 AMIkids programs nationally. The organization works with at-risk youngsters ages 15 through 18. With roots in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. since 1969, the RGV center saw its beginnings in Cameron County in 1982.
Partners in education
The facility operates like a sort of trade school. Those sent to the facility receive instructions from personnel working there and from Los Fresnos Consolidated School District. The entities work as a partnership. The last batch of students come from a number of counties. These include Hidalgo, Willacy, Tarrant, Nueces, Harris, Jim Wells and Kleberg. Each of them was adjudicated by judges from their respective jurisdictions.
The classes include welding, behavior modification, correctional therapy and academic education.
“Our percentage rate of success is above the state,” said instructor Robert Vera, “and the cost of education is much lower.”
Funding for the center that employs 18 people comes from the state and from counties under a per diem system. The average time a youngster stays in the facility ranges from six to nine months. They are also in charge of doing all the chores, work on other projects and get community service hours credit.
Training in action
During a tour of the facility, one could observe a group of youngsters doing welding jobs. Each was in a metal booth wearing an apron, a mask and holding a torch like in a sort of assembly line from another world. Some of them mention their arrests include burglary, theft and drug possession.
When the question comes up of what they intend to do after they finish their stay at the center, some of the youngsters said they would like to work as welders. Others said they were unsure of their future plans.
Filling local job demand
Welders are in high demand, particularly at the Port of Brownsville where a company is planning to hire hundreds of people to work in that line of work. Keppel AmFELS at the port employs hundreds of welders and the company is always looking for more qualified workers. Also, a new company has announced plans to build a plant expected to hire a contingent of welders as well.
But the issue is that there is currently a low supply of qualified welders in the region that needs to be filled.
In an effort to help fill these in-demand positions, Los Fresnos officials, for example, are looking into the possibility of offering a welding course since Keppel AmFELS’s recent announcement of its multi-million-dollar contract with LNG. The company will hire several hundred welders at its yard at the port. AMIkids Rio Grande Valley can also be instrumental in filling these positions, as Eliseo Gamboa, a veteran instructor, says the youngsters get a chance to learn different degrees of welding. They also receive certification from the American Welding Society.
According to a report, the average salary for a welder is $17.68 per hour in the United States.