A standing-room-only crowd filled the Bitterroot College’s gymnasium Tuesday night when the community turned out to support Trapper Creek Job Corps Center.
Those who were fortunate to arrive early enough to get a seat found themselves on their feet throughout the event after a number of inspirational stories for past and present students of the center located southwest of Darby.
Last month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue notified the Labor Department that the Forest Service would withdraw from operating its 28 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers by the end of September. The Labor Department followed with an announcement it would privatize 16 of those centers and close the other nine, including Anaconda.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., announced last week that he had personally convinced President Donald Trump to save the Anaconda Job Corps center. Since then, there has been no official announcement and Anaconda remains on the list to be closed on the Federal Register.
The Trapper Creek CCC is on the list to be transferred to the Labor Department and privatized. If that happens, all of the center’s current employees will have to find new jobs or retire.
Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark told those gathered Tuesday night that Trapper Creek’s future is uncertain.
“What we know is the Forest Service employees helping disadvantaged young adults change their lives are now facing reduction-in-force notices,” Clark said.
Standing inside the college building whose exterior was painted several years ago by Trapper Creek students, Clark said she, like many in the Bitterroot Valley, had a direct connection with the center that has been changing the lives of young people for more than 50 years. In the summer of 2000, she moved to Darby after her husband got a job at the center.
“We know that Trapper Creek works,” she said. “Our mission is clear. Don’t mess with success. Keep Trapper Creek Job Corps operating as it is now.”
Trapper Creek Job Corps Director Jesse Casterson said he was “humbled” to see so many turn out in support of the center at the meeting hosted by the college.
“Trapper Creek is the Bitterroot,” Casterson said. “It’s a part of the community.”
The center does more than just provide an educational and vocational training, he said. It gives students a chance to equal the playing field and, for many, the opportunity to serve something bigger than themselves.
“That’s a powerful thing,” Casterson said.
All three members of the Montana congressional delegation offered support to Trapper Creek through pre-recorded videos or speeches from their staff, but the stories of lives being transformed from the center’s students is what most who attended will likely remember.
Paul Stewart — a 23-year-old born in Kazakhstan — told his story of survival that began almost at birth. Stewart said he spent the first six years of his life in an orphanage, fighting over food.
The orphanage provided food for 40, he said. “There were a lot more orphans than 40, but somehow I persevered,” Stewart said.
He was adopted into a loving family in Oakland, but found himself again struggling to survive the “'hood.” On his street, there six kids his age. Within a month of him turning 16, all the others were dead. Four were murdered for a decision involving a rival gang, one committed suicide after hearing of their deaths, and the last was stabbed to death in prison.
On his 16th birthday, while he was in hiding, his girlfriend was found by the same people and raped, beaten and killed. He ran away the next day.
He was living in a crack house at 22 and ready to give up when he heard about Job Corps.
Stewart arrived at Trapper Creek on April 16. Within his first week, he was put into “orange card,” which meant he had come into the facility with drugs in his system. Last week, he passed his second urine analysis and on Wednesday was handed his firefighter “red card” that he earned after completing the center’s rigorous guard school.
Since he’s been at Trapper Creek, Stewart said he’s overcome his fear of heights by jumping off a plank nailed into a tree 20 feet off the ground while connected to a rope held by people he had only known for two weeks. He conquered his fear of water by showing he was capable of treading water for 5 minutes.
And “I’ve faced my despair and grief over the loss of my friends by waking up every day with a positive mindset, pushing myself to do my very best in trade and education,” Stewart said.
Stewart told the crowd his story was not unique at Trapper Creek. Every student’s story is different, but in many ways the same.
“It is very easy to separate all of us into different categories because as humans that’s what we’ve been taught to do,” Stewart said. “It’s easier that way. It’s also easier to be a mean person. To take all that abuse and trials and tribulations that the world has been throwing at us since we were conceived, and spit it at everyone venomously.
“To wrap ourselves around the pain, grief and betrayal we’ve accumulated in our lives and hold it tight never letting anyone know about it, locking it away, ignoring our own faults and stab at other’s weaknesses, hoping that it’ll make us feel better,” he said. “That’s the easy way.”
At Trapper Creek, Stewart said students are offered a different way.
He calls it the difficult path.
“Like the light glimmering at the end of the tunnel, it might seem completely dark and aimless at first, but Trapper Creek and its staff are that light,” he said. “It’s not a blazing fire, but a spark. It isn’t a lighthouse to keep ships from crashing, but rather a small campfire on the shore that tells the ship there is a chance.
“That’s what Trapper Creek is — hope,” Stewart said. “Hope that we can avoid the dreary walk towards an early grave. Hope that we can go on and get a college education. Hope that we can make enough money to support our families, pursue careers or the lifestyles we’ve always wanted. Hope to chase dreams and leave the weight of our past behind.”
Stewart plans to enter the center’s facilities maintenance trade. Eventually, he would like to go to college to become a park ranger.
“It might be a long and arduous path, but far better than where I was headed towards,” he said. “Here I believe in myself and those around me to do everything we can to take the next step forward.”