Forward March students gained workforce skills, forged friendships

OCALA, Fla. (Nov. 10, 2016) – Drake Rantala wouldn’t have missed the Forward March graduation for anything. He arrived early, eager to witness the passing of the torch to the next generation of graduates and share his own stories from back in the day when he went through the program.

That wasn’t so long ago for the 19-year-old – just last September, in fact – but a lot has changed since then.

To begin with, Rantala got a job, and is proud to display his employee badge. He’s working on completing his high school diploma and is picking up a second job working the night shift at Walmart.

“The way I got involved in the program, I wasn’t doing so well in the workforce. I had jobs here and there that didn’t fit well,” he said. “The Forward March program made it easier for me to understand what I needed to learn.”

He took advantage of the employability and life skills he learned to impress an HR representative with On Top of the World during the Fall Job Fair held at Paddock Mall. He was hired as a landscape technician the next day.

“It was exactly what I wanted,” he said.

And employment is exactly the end game for the program, said Melinda Sowka, vocational instructor with CareerSource CLM.

View a gallery of photos from the Forward March graduation at CareerSource CLM’s Facebook page.

Forward March is a 140-hour Work Readiness program provided by Eckerd Workforce Development and CareerSource CLM in partnership with the Department of Military Affairs, Marion Technical College, the City of Ocala and Paxen, a program of Eckerd.

The program includes much-needed competencies for qualified young adults seeking employment. Skills such as interviewing techniques, work ethic, financial literacy, managing personal care and more are taught in a nontraditional classroom setting and feature participation by prospective employers and members of the community.

Guests arriving for the graduation ceremony at Marion Technical College made their way down a sidewalk lined with American flags.  Inside, graduates wore flags of a different kind – ribbons of red and green representing Kenya’s flag in honor of Melanie Otieno, an earlier graduate who passed away suddenly in September at the age of 19.

Otieno, known for her infectious smile, moved to Ocala from Kenya, Africa. Sowka described her as a “remarkable young lady” who participated in both Forward March and Workforce Development programs. Without previous work experience, Otieno went on to work for Walgreens where she trained in their Pharmacy Technician program and earned her National Pharmacy Tech Certification.

”Melanie always strived to do the best she could and make the best of every situation,” Sowka said. “We will always keep her memory in our hearts.”

Wearing green caps and gowns, each graduate was called to the front of Brewster’s Hall to receive their certificate: Destiny Lima Acosta, Khalil Boston, Heather Dunson, Jordan Grandchamp, Kenisha Grimmage, Tommie Maynard, Jimmy McDaniel II, Scott Schwingel, Angelo Williams and Jonathan Wilson.

Acosta said she moved to the area from Miami to live with her mother after getting into a “little bit of trouble.”

She said that Forward March “has been one of the best experiences that ever happened to me.”

“More than job experience, it’s been like therapy” she said. “We really all have the potential to do what we want.”

During remarks to his classmates, Tommie Maynard said that at first, getting up at 5 a.m. and sitting in class all day was grueling. That changed when he said “everyone all started opening up to one another and supporting each other.”

Maynard said the program was “one of three great accomplishments of my life, but I know there is an ocean of accomplishments to look forward to.”

In the audience, James Leonard couldn’t help but smile when he heard that. Four years earlier, Leonard was Maynard’s teacher at Kingsbury Academy, an alternative placement school. The two kept in touch and Leonard said he happily accepted Maynard’s invitation to attend.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Leonard  said. “I’m impressed he got up there and delivered a speech. He’s come a long way.”

Beth Allen said much the same of her son, Jimmy McDaniel II.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth and maturity in him since he started this and that makes me very happy.”

To learn more about the Forward March program, call 352-291-9550, ext. 1852.

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