A bus dropped off Sergio Gutierrez on aptly named Opportunity Lane on the edge of the Umpqua National Forest, east of Roseburg, Ore.
A city boy from Stockton, Calif., Gutierrez might have shuddered at the rural setting on the banks of the Little River. The river was filled with coho salmon, and steelhead and cutthroat trout, and surrounded by Douglas firs.
Instead, he embraced the rural setting at the Wolf Creek Job Corps Center. He was 16. It was 1970. Gutierrez was seeking direction.
“Stockton wasn’t the safest place, and I’ve got plenty of scars on my face, and that reflects troubled times, violence and other issues,” said Gutierrez, now a 60-year-old a judge who sits on the Idaho Court of Appeals. “To go to a place where you were safe, you were secure, where you were provided a bed, an allowance for some basic clothing and three meals a days, education and training — it was very appealing for me.”
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On Tuesday night, Gutierrez will be honored with nine other Job Corps graduates from across the country as Graduate Heroes in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Job Corps, a program to help impoverished teens and young adults. More than 200 nominations were received. The honorees were chosen based on their stories of courage, determination and inspiration.
“Over the past 50 years, Job Corps has helped almost 3 million young people transform their lives by teaching them the skills critical to find and sustain employment,” National Job Corps Association CEO Lonnie P. Taylor said in a statement.
After completing his training at Wolf Creek, Gutierrez attended community college in California, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Boise State University and earned his law degree from the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
He worked for the Idaho Migrant Council in Nampa before going to law school and later returned as a board member. He also worked for Legal Aid Services before going into private practice. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus appointed him to a seat on the 3rd District Court bench in Canyon County in 1993, and former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 2002.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and raised in Stockton and Carlsbad, N.M., Gutierrez had a challenging childhood. His mother suffered from mental disease. From ages 4 to 12, Gutierrez lived with his grandmother, Maria Sandoval, in Carlsbad. So did Gutierrez’s younger sister, Dina.
Their home was barely habitable. The roof leaked. Holes in the floor allowed snakes and rats to enter at will. Sandoval made underwear for the kids from flour sacks.
“She was mom, dad, grandma, teacher,” Gutierrez said. “She was a tremendous woman who gave herself completely to me and my sister and our well-being. She provided us with direction and guidance that got us on a much better footing than our siblings.”
When Sandoval died, the children returned to their mother and stepfather. There were 13 children in that household and never enough money from the wages earned by Gutierrez’s stepfather, a farmworker.
Gutierrez dropped out of school after finishing the ninth grade and moved out. He worked in the fields and at menial jobs. He said he had no prospects for a better life until the day he walked into an employment office, where a woman asked if he might be interested in the Job Corps.
Q: What were your circumstances leading to that point?
A: There were times when I would look to friends for a place to sleep, looking for a place away from the skid row, where I could lie down and sleep. Those instabilities provided moments where I was on the streets looking not only for a place to sleep but for something to eat. I violated the law on occasion to feed myself. It’s not something I’m proud of, but at that age you don’t know where to turn. It was fortuitous for me to have encountered this woman at the employment office who explained the Job Corps program and enrolled me.
Q: You said earlier you found the Wolf Corps Job Center appealing. Can you expand on that?
A: For the first time in some time, since my grandmother died, I actually felt peace. I can remember going out from the center to where the river was, just being able to enjoy the quietness of the water moving through the rocks and occasionally seeing a fish jump through the water. It was a change in my life that I had been looking for. I didn’t waste any time. I seriously got down to take care of my GED and obtained that and enrolled in the carpenter’s trade.
I was surprised when they appointed me to be supervisor of a crew, because there were men there. I was a boy, 16 years old. It was a big boost in my confidence to be informed that you would be a leader and that my progress in obtaining my GED was exceptionally fast.
Q: How were your instructors?
A: In my experience, we had some great instructors. Not only were they good in their areas of expertise, but in their social skills and personal skills. They caused us to want to mature, but they also did it in a way that was not intimidating, condescending or abusive. They treated us like men and were very respectful. They were not so much concerned with their careers but the impact they were having on all these young men. It showed in the end that they were not the kind that would clock in and clock out and you wouldn’t see them. They were always available. If there was a need or an issue to address, it was very easy to connect with one of the adult staff members or faculty members.
Q: How do you reflect now on your time at Wolf Creek?
A: That was a great experience for me. You go through those things in your life and you wish you could duplicate them, because our society does not reflect that kind of goodness or respect or achievement of one another. Those are sweet memories that when I need to, I will reflect back upon and gain strength for what confronts me on a given day.
The impact corpsmen had upon one another was unique. I don’t know if you would call it brotherhood, but certainly we held each other accountable. It was a regimented style of living. We had inspections every morning. The inspectors would come with their white gloves and go through the bathrooms and the dormitories and check the tightness of our beds and check our dress. It was quite different than what we had back home.
Q: You mentioned that you were not accepted by the townspeople in Roseburg, who believed you and the other corpsmen might be hoodlums. How did you counteract that image?
A: The Job Corps demanded of us and we signed up to live a life that was exemplary in terms of citizenship. We worked hard to contribute to the well-being of our community. We erected tables and shelters and picnic areas and bathrooms (for nearby forest campgrounds) for the benefit of the public. We were all very much looking to a new life and one that included being part of the community and not being disruptive.
Q: You mentioned that you remained active with the Centennial Job Corps in Nampa and once served on its board. How relevant is the Job Corps today?
A: It’s still a very relevant program that is not only of benefit to the corpsmen and corpswomen but to our communities that get to benefit from the work that they do and because of the lives that get shaped and become productive citizens. That’s how I view Job Corps.