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.”
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.
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.
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.