Before last November, Dylan Lewis and Kylie Graf didn’t have much of a future.
Lewis said he expected he would take life one day at a time, “maybe flipping burgers or something,” without long-term plans.
Graf spent most of her day sitting around, watching daytime television, with little hope or ambition.
That changed thanks to the Gateway Program offered by Okanagan College for students from School District 23’s Central Programs and Services.
“Most of the kids who go to the school have abuse issues or home issues, some of them are living on the street—it’s sort of the bottom end of the school training system,” said John Haller, dean of trades and apprenticeship at Okanagan College.
Randy Horne, administrator at Central Programs and Services, said the students are “honest and real” but have struggled in school for various reasons.
“They come to us because maybe they’ve struggled academically with the pace of a traditional school,” said Horne.
He added several students deal with substance abuse and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
“It’s a real variety of reasons why they’re at Central, typically they need a slower pace and more support.”
Through the Gateway Program, select students get hands-on experience at the college’s trades facility.
“We give them a sampler course. Basically it’s a three-month program where they get to sample 10 to 12 different trades with a hope that they’ll find an interest in one of them and start pursuing an education or go out and get a job in one of them, then come back as an apprentice,” said Haller.
The Okanagan College Gateway Program has been offered to Central Programs and Services students for two years and there are plans to continue with the opportunity next fall.
“It was awesome, it gave me a lot of insight on what I wanted to do—now I’m doing it,” said Lewis.
Potential students are chosen through a screening process. This year’s program began with 17 students: Fourteen of those students graduated and 13 have entered foundation programs at Okanagan College.
Horne said the Gateway Program has provided Central students with “an avenue to rebuild their confidence.”
Both Lewis and Graf have enrolled in the RV Service Technician foundation program.
“I wanted to be an electrician, but my math skills weren’t good enough. This course has electrical, plumbing—it’s cool because it has everything, like 14 different trades,” said Graf.
In the Gateway Program’s first year, 15 of 16 students graduated and most chose to pursue a pre-apprentice program at the college.
“They get a practical side. The students haven’t done well in the K-12 system because most of it is academic,” said Haller.
“Our training is hands-on trades training. Certainly there is some theoretical training as well, but there’s a practical application to all that theory training. What you learn in the morning is something you’ll actually get to do in our shops in the afternoon.”
To help get past financial hindrances, the Ministry of Children and Family Development gives support for tuition fees, School District 23 contributes to the course fees and the Rotary Club of Kelowna Foundation provides funds for essential textbooks.
Haller said he’s gotten goosebumps from some of the stories he’s heard at Gateway Program graduations.
“We get comments like, ‘I would probably be dead if you guys hadn’t gotten me into this program.’ Or, ‘This got me off drugs.’ It’s that dramatic.”
Nancy Ankerstein, program administrator of trades and apprenticeship, said she’s proud of the students who have had success through the Gateway Program.
“It means their life,” said Ankerstein.
“When you look at the backgrounds, some of the barriers that exist for them, there are a lot of times—from a monetary point of view—they would never be able to come into a program like this.
“It’s afforded these students an opportunity that they probably would never have been able to get.”
Okanagan College has also offered Gateway Programs to women and aboriginal students.
“We have some of the highest success rates of any institution in Canada for converting women into trades programs,” said Haller.
He added the goal is to add the Gateway Program opportunity to every high school in the region.
“We just think it helps the students with making choices.”
Lewis and Graf repeatedly expressed their gratitude for being given a unique opportunity.
“Gateway changed my life,” said Graf.
“This has given me a future,” said Lewis.