Submitted by Alicia Bennett, Public Affairs Officer, U. S. Forest Service Job Corps
Meeting Samantha “Sam” Berko, it’s hard to imagine the rough start she’s had in life. Berko, currently enrolled in Curlew Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center’s (CCC) union painting trade, is confident and outgoing. If a visitor arrives at Curlew, without hesitation she makes a beeline to warmly welcome them to on-center.
Berko arrived at Curlew on November 15, 2022. In a few months, she will graduate and travel to Clearfield Job Corps Center (Clearfield, Utah) to enroll in Advanced Collision Repair and Refinish. The United Auto Workers industry credentials and certifications Berko earns in this second, advanced pre-apprentice training program will prepare her for a position at a car dealership or independently owned body shop.
Berko’s resilience has been forged through adversity. Her story is distressingly familiar for many of the young women who enroll in Job Corps. Raised in Grants Pass, Oregon, she spent the first seven years of her like bouncing between her biological mother and father in a custody battle. When Berko’s mother married a second time, to a man who owned his own home and with a stable job, the tables were turned in her favor and she gained full custody of her daughter.
A sense of normalcy and structure settled over Berko’s life until her mother died on December 9, 2017. At age fifteen, she found herself trapped in a household governed by an emotionally abusive stepfather who took out his grief and anger on her. “He told me I would never amount to anything,” Berko reflected “He said that the only way I could be successful was laying on my back for men’s pleasure.” Berko related her story with no sense of grievance or victimhood. You even detect a sense of empathy towards this man despite what she endured. “I was a constant reminder of her to him.”
Berko has labored hard to process and overcome her abusive past, but unsurprising, she battles bouts of depression. Still, she lives her life guided by a principle of staying strong through tough times. “The past is in the past. You can either run from it or learn from it,” she said. “When the world turns upside down, make the best of it.”
Berko eventually left home. In succeeding years struggled to make ends meet working minimum wage jobs. Expenses ate up her meager salary and her life was punctuated with periods of homelessness where she would tent camp or live in her car. “I realized I can’t just keep getting dead end jobs where I can’t climb up,” stated Berko. Last year, with winter approaching, she decided Curlew Job Corps was her last best chance to start life fresh.
After a health condition prevented Berko from enrolling in forestry conservation, she enrolled in union painting. “Doug Wilson, my painting instructor has seen me at some of my low times and he’s definitely pushed me to become better in my trade,” stated Berko. “He gave me the belief I can do anything I put my mind too. He has helped me become better person, helped me keep my head on straight and focus on what I want to do.”
CCCs have long incorporated a union-operated pre-apprenticeship training model includes a paid job where student earns industry recognized credentials and participation in classroom learning and work-based learning, all under the instruction of a mentor. Berko completed three internships over the last year. The instructors that operate union trades excel at supporting motivated students like her and they encourage female students to enroll in pre-apprenticeship programs. Union trades are still a reliable pathway to the middle-class and women continue to be under-represented. For Berko, it has been a once in a lifetime opportunity that she said has set her up for life.
Berko will spend 18 months earning her certifications at Clearfield Job Corps and then plans to work at a Toyota Manufacturing plant for five to seven years. “With enough experience under my belt and if I’ve saved enough money, I can open my own car detailing and body paint shop,” she explained. The business name she’s chosen–Sam’s Masterpiece– is eponymous.
Having watched her stepfather run his own business, Berko recognizes the challenges of operating a small business. “I’m definitely thinking that I will have to go from being a small-town country girl and move to a somewhat big city to make sure I have enough revenue and business coming my way to keep my shop open,” she reflected. “I’ll detail cars and do body work. I want to create artwork and watch it drive down the road. I feel like I’m grasping for the stars, but in reality I know it’s something that I can do and I can manage.”