Construction Trades Academy Graduation: “We Are Our Brother’s Keeper”

Responding to local workforce development needs and the need for additional affordable housing in McDowell County and Western North Carolina, McDowell Technical Community College partnered with Gateway Wellness Foundation to create a new Construction Trades Academy that began in February and ended in June.

Training five days per week, five hours per day for approximately 16 weeks, the graduates participated in work-based learning, working in paid positions, including home repairs and installation of manufactured housing throughout McDowell County and the surrounding area.

Construction Trades Academy

Seven graduates represented the inaugural graduating class from the program on June 23. Those graduates were:

  • Israel Rincon-Aviles
  • Keith Tupper
  • Isaac Hensley
  • Ricardo Romero
  • Benedicto Gonzalez
  • Benneth Martinez
  • Donald Ramsey

The homes students helped construct and repair are part of a larger housing development project designed and sponsored by Gateway, in partnership with Dogwood Health Trust, to create affordable housing for low-income families and individuals.

As the first class of the Construction Trades Academy recently discovered, hands-on learning and work-based learning opportunities often provide students much more than a vocational skillset or career-specific training regimen. When they are lucky, as these students were, they not only accomplish those job and career tasks, they get a chance to be part of something much bigger than themselves, something that gives them a real sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment.

“I tell people all the time that, ‘We are our brother’s keeper,’” said Don Ramsey, a student in the class who is also an employee of Gateway Wellness Foundation. “When we finished our classroom work and passed all 26 of our testing modules, we spent the remainder of our training doing repairs and renovations for needy people in our community, people who are less fortunate than ourselves, people who often have medical or physical needs that require handicap-accessible restrooms, wheelchair ramps and other similar renovations or repairs, but whose income precludes them from completing the renovations themselves. And it’s a real blessing to be able to help these folks.” The Gateway Wellness Foundation partnered with MTCC and helped seek a grant from the Dogwood Health Trust in 2021 for start-up costs for the new academy. Gateway also paid students’ hourly wages for their work-based learning activities.

Ramsey, who is also a member of the McDowell Tech Board of Trustees, recounted how some of his fellow classmates couldn’t believe the dire situation in which some of these people found themselves. One home, for example, needed a handicapped restroom installed, but the flooring and joists were too rotten to support a new floor. “Many of these folks are poverty stricken. They have had no money and seemingly no hope by the time we reach them, and sometimes parts of their home seem almost beyond repair. But this is their home, and we meet them where they’re at and work from there.”

For Ramsey, seeing the sense of satisfaction on the faces of those same classmates as they stepped up to meet the physical and structural needs of their fellow man was amazing. Over a two-week period, the group worked on 15 houses. “It was a win-win for everyone. Even after paying the students for their labor and providing material costs, Gateway saved money. Students not only developed skills and completed the on-the-job training they needed, but left with a feeling of pride, having helped their brother and sister in need. And of course, our clients were relieved and happy.”

One such happy client was a woman who needed a handicap-accessible bathroom for a wheelchair-bound family member who could only take sponge baths because they couldn’t get into their own bathroom for many years. When Ramsey, as a Gateway employee, went to their home to inspect the home and assess the situation, the woman told him that it was her one desire before she died to help her family member take a real shower. Ramsey got with Chris Saxton, instructor for the Construction Trades Academy, and with funding from Gateway, they arranged for Construction Trades students to put in a handicap-accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower for the family.

Another gentleman contacted Gateway because his wife was ready to be released in two days from a rehab facility where she had been placed after breaking her hip, but the rehabilitation facility would not release her until a handicap ramp was installed on the couple’s home. His wife, he told Ramsey, was also battling multiple forms of cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and wanted to come home. With the help of an overnight delivery from Hawkins Lumber Company, Construction Trades students installed a new ramp within two days, much to the disbelief of the social worker at the rehab facility—that is, until Ramsey snapped a picture and sent it to the man as he sat in the social worker’s office.

“We don’t know how much time she will have left, but we don’t question that,” said Ramsey. “We did our part to help bring her home.” Just this week, Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President, received a copy of a letter from the woman’s husband thanking staff and students at the college for their work. “Please extend our wholehearted expression of thanks to the…class members, as well as the skill the class must have taught your students for a job well done,” read the letter of appreciation.

During the June 23rd graduation ceremony of college’s first class of Construction Trades Academy, Neil Gurney with Gateway Wellness Foundation told the graduates and their friends and families how significant it was for people to have a safe home to go to, a home that meets a multitude of basic needs. He recounted how important it was for him to have a place to call home when he immigrated to America from South Africa. Those memories have even more meaning for him now, as Gateway recently entered into a partnership with Centro Unido Latino Americano to address housing needs for Latino immigrants to Western North Carolina as part of Gateway’s larger efforts to address affordable housing in the area.

“Safe, affordable housing is a basic need for economic growth and vitality in McDowell County and throughout our region,” said Dr. Merritt. “When Neil called me about a year ago to ask if we could meet to talk about the college partnering with Gateway to provide a talent pipeline that could help contribute to more affordable housing throughout the region, saying ‘yes’ was a no-brainer. It is a privilege for MTCC to be a partner with Gateway and we are grateful to the Dogwood Health Trust for their support. Whenever Neil Gurney calls, I will say, ‘Yes.’ Mr. Ramsey is right, ‘We are ALL our brother’s keepers,’ and when we work together, it can change lives.”

Thanks to the folks at Gateway and other funding sources, additional Fast-Track Career Academies will begin in August in other career pathways at McDowell Tech:

  • Plumbing Level One
  • Heating and Refrigeration Technology
  • Residential Electrical Systems
  • Intro to CNC Machining and Milling Level One
  • Construction Trades, including carpentry and project management

Classes begin on August 8, with the exception of the Heating and Refrigeration Technology class, which begins on August 15. Each class lasts 8 to 16 weeks and most are offered during the evening hours with some online coursework required.

“These new academies can prepare students to enter the workforce in a matter of weeks,” said Stacy Buff, Associate Vice-President of Workforce Development. “Each of the classes can also be applied toward a degree program if the student later decides to continue their studies. And thankfully, classes are still tuition-free through 2023.”

To register for one of MTCC’s Fast-Track Career Training Programs, visit .