Maui Job Corps marks 50th

Kihei teenager Heber Ramirez dropped out of high school last year and found himself burdened with an uncertain future and few marketable skills to enter the workforce on Maui.

In the next couple of weeks, however, the 17-year-old will receive a degree in facilities maintenance from the Maui Satellite Job Corps Center in Makawao.

“School wasn’t working out for me and I found that this was a wonderful alternative,” Ramirez said of the Upcountry school. “I came to it and felt it out for a couple of weeks and I realized that maybe I should get into a trade that I might be familiar with.

“As soon as I went into it I did it fast and learned new skills that I’ve never learned before and it was wonderful.”

Ramirez is among about 20 students who are expected to graduate this year from the program administered by the United States Department of Labor.

The nationwide program offers free education and vocational training to low-income youths ages 16 to 24.

On Friday, the Maui site celebrated the national organization’s 50th anniversary with an open house of the rural 12-acre campus, which is relatively unknown to many residents of Maui County.

“We seem to be a well-kept secret on the island so we’re trying to get our name out there as much as possible,” said Site Director Robert Upton. “Our focus is to still get more locals.”

The school’s campus traces back to the 1900s when Henry Perrine Baldwin built the current administrative building to serve as a seminary school for Native Hawaiian girls. During World War II, the school was closed and the U.S. military used the school’s dormitories as a hospital.

Maunaolu College occupied the space in 1950 until its closing in 1972. After that, it was used for county programs such as a youth shelter. The school campus was eventually remodeled for the Maui Satellite Job Corps Center and held its grand opening on March 18, 1989.

Over the past seven years, the site has added three dormitories to the program as well as career fields and student openings. The site has approximately 128 students from across the state, the Marshall Islands, America Samoa, the Republic of Palau and Micronesia.

“We have the largest recruiting area of any Job Corps in the country,” said Joann Espinosa, center director of Hawaii Job Corps Center in Waimanalo on Oahu. “Our focus is on Maui and serving the youth of Maui, and being able to provide them the opportunities to find employment here and elsewhere if they chose.

“Really, we’re focusing on them a lot more than we have in the past.”

Rheena Campbell, admissions counselor at the Maui site, said that the program is at full capacity and that more than half of the student population is from outside of Maui County. She said she would like to recruit more local high school grads to the program, which graduates 97 percent of its students.

“A lot of people are not sure what Job Corps is and they think it sounds military, or where kids who didn’t quite make it go,” Campbell said. “It’s actually a place for students who want to get vocational training and hands-on experience but don’t have the means to do it. We serve that need and can give them that experience.”

The Maui site offers two-year, self-paced training in four fields: culinary arts, facilities maintenance, office administration and retail sales.

In many ways the program reflects college life, including on-campus housing, a cafeteria, student government, clubs and intramural sports.

Ramirez remembered talking with his mother about enrolling in the program and that she thought it was necessary for him to “become a resident and independent.”

“It was kind of scary at first because I was 16 when I came into the program and there’s 24-year-old people here,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but everybody was friendly and it was a really nice environment to be in.”

Vaivasa Ta’ase Shiro, a 2007 graduate, said that she, too, was scared to attend the program away from her home on America Samoa. Ta’ase Shiro was 20 years old and had dropped out of college when her father signed her up.

“I cried the whole flight here because I didn’t want to come here and I didn’t have family here,” she said.

Graduating with a degree in office administration, she worked as a teller and supervisor for Bank of Hawaii in Kihei for five years. She recently stopped working to raise her 2-year-old daughter, Lheinora “Elilai” Ta’ase Shiro.

The mother said that the small size of the Maui program made it feel as if everyone were family and that she met her husband, Goodwin Shiro, a fellow 2007 graduate, in the program.

“I felt so comfortable and I loved it here,” said Ta’ase Shiro.

While some students have attended the program as dropouts of public schools, Campbell chose to avoid the term.

“They’re still getting schooling,” she said. “It’s just that traditional schooling doesn’t work for them. We ultimately want them after they graduate from high school but we have students like Heber who want something else.”

Ramirez has taken on a number of leadership roles in the program, including bay leader of his dorm and sergeant at arms in the student government. He plans to go into construction and take automotive classes after graduating.

“Yeah I’m a dropout, but I just readjusted what I was thinking and got more into (learning),” he said. “I didn’t really let being a high school dropout affect me in the program. I looked at where I was going and what this program can do for me and how I can take it to another level.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at