‘I can’t believe I did this’: Grant supports VA Ready’s work to retrain commonwealth’s unemployed population

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WRIC) — The Richmond-based Richard S. Reynolds Foundation is awarding a two-year grant of $50,000 to the Virginia Ready Initiative (VA Ready), a public-private partnership dedicated to retraining unemployed Virginians and helping them secure in-demand positions.

VA Ready was founded in the summer of 2020 in response to the employment crisis, offering credential training programs that can be completed within 6-12 weeks, as well as 30 pre-approved courses at all 23 Virginia Community College System (VCCS) institutions.

“Helping our fellow Virginians find career success during this national crisis is a natural extension of our work at the foundation,” Richard S. Reynolds Foundation President Richard S. Reynolds III said. “We are excited to be able to provide support for VA Ready’s vital initiative.”

Reynolds, for whom the foundation is named, is known as the Aladdin of Aluminum. He founded the United States Foil Company in 1919, which later became Reynolds Metals Company.

“We’re so grateful not only for the financial support of this grant, but for the message of resiliency that The Richard S. Reynolds Foundation sends to our students,” VA Ready CEO Caren Merrick said. “The story behind the foundation that’s given us this grant is a good reminder to our students that even during tough times like these, we can emerge better for it.”

Becca Austin of Richmond and Tracey Delagarza of Newport News each recently completed programs through VA Ready.

Delagarza says she was going through a difficult time when the coronavirus pandemic hit. She had just left her previous construction job to begin working at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Delagarza tells 8News that she was guaranteed a position at the shipyard if she completed a certain class. But because of COVID-19 concerns, the classes were postponed, leaving her unemployed for the time being.

“I was hired in February,” she said. “They closed the colleges, so they pushed the classes back all the way to August. So, I actually wasn’t working.”

Though Delagarza says that period of unemployment was both stressful and challenging, the wait was worth it.

“I loved that class,” she said. “[The instructor] had us all brand new, never had done anything before, and he started from scratch. We did stick welding and it was awesome. He was very patient, very informative. He helped you.”

Delagarza says she had originally signed up for X18 welding, but her instructor felt that her strengths would be better suited in X11 welding.

“As an X11, you touch on everything. You’re some of the first people to touch the ship and some of the last people to touch the ship,” she said. “I like it a lot.”

Austin was equally pleased with how understanding her instructor was throughout the VA Ready program. A single mother and front-line worker amid the pandemic, she was looking for more reliable work in proximity to where she lived and a job that did not take such a toll on her body.

“Our instructor was pretty awesome. My class was on the same days and times as my son’s football practice, so I would be on the Zoom call in my car at the field,” Austin said. “You’re trying to concentrate on class, get your work done, do your assignments, be in attendance, concentrate, and still be sane. So it was a lot, but Miss Shannon, she was really awesome because, guess what, some times she had to cater to her son while being our instructor. We’re all human.”

That humanity was needed more than ever when the father of Austin’s children passed away in October 2020, as she was trying to complete her certification.

Austin says she was at the gas station with her children when she found out that she had succeeded in her work to become a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) through VA Ready’s program.

“My kids were in the car with me, we’re at the gas station getting gas, and I’m just like, ‘I can’t believe I did this,'” she said. “My babies were like, ‘Mommy, we’re so proud of you. We prayed over you. We knew you could do it. You’re Wonder Woman, remember?'”

Austin already has experience in the medical field, but felt the additional certification would make her a more attractive candidate for further employment prospects.

“It gives me more opportunity, and I’m more marketable because I have additional licenses,” she said.

Both Delagarza and Austin agree that completing their respective classes would not have been possible without the assistance of VA Ready.

Austin says she was supplied with a laptop, e-materials, and the instruction needed to become a CCMA all at no cost.

“Do you know how many of us are in situations that there’s no way that we would’ve been able to pay for all this on our own?” Austin said. “Some of us were working, but a lot of us, we had no job. We had no job whatsoever.”

Delagarza is enjoying her time working at Newport News Shipbuilding, while Austin tells 8News that she is actively searching for additional employment. Currently, she takes care of a client three hours a day, but would like to expand her workload.

According to a release, more than 700 Virginians are already enrolled in the VA Ready program, as of Jan. 5, 2021.

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