It started with the glimmer of an important question. Dr. Ridge Hammons, a lifelong educator, watched his students walk the halls carrying books and bags seemingly without direction. “It puzzled me. It worried me. What are these kids going to do after they graduate? Do they know?” Dr. Hammons asked himself.
Recalling times past, Dr. Hammons thought fondly of his own school days when his shop teacher showed him and his fellow classmates the world. “We used to pile into the back of the pickup and see buildings being torn down and put back up. We saw the world firsthand.” That, he thought, was the problem. Students today are not given the opportunity to explore what is right there in front of them. From this, HELP, Hammons Employment Leadership Program, was born; offering a metaphoric pickup to the youth of the Coastal Bend.
HELP’s motto, “How can you find the job of your dreams if you don’t even know it exists?” has led its development and pursuit of community improvement for ten years.
In the beginning, Dr. Hammons designed programs for those that might need the most guidance, at-risk youth. Through the SPICE program, (Summer Partners in Career Exploration) 40 high schoolers saw more than 30 jobs over the course of a summer; giving them the means to retool their future career prospects. More programs emerged all with the same logic behind them. Showing a young person and throwing out the textbooks leads to real learning. If they walk the halls of a hospital, they will never forget the stacks of charts, the beeps from the monitors, or the compassion radiating from the nurses.
Today, HELP’s mainstay is the Texas Three Step, an interactive three-part program designed for career exploration at its finest. Now, home in 17 schools, multiple school districts and growing, students are given an opportunity to learn about careers from a variety of angles and voices. The first step of this program is provided through a visit to our website showcasing a multitude of careers in video format. We call this HELP’s Windows on the World, which gives every student a chance to explore a career from any device, cell phone, tablet, or computer. When a career area of interest is identified from the students, the second step brings in a guest speaker. These speakers are experts and have a mountain of real-life knowledge to impart to these students. The third step is a field trip to local area companies that can show these students what the career in question really looks like.
Over the past ten years, HELP has taken over 4,500 students on 250 trips to over 100 different job sites. When Dr. Hammons and his group of youngsters strapped on heat protecting shoe covers to walk across the metal plank atop huge vats of scorching hot bubbling chemicals at the once bustling Sherwin Alumina Plant, he knew he was on to something. “You can’t beat that experience. You know those chemicals were hotter than the surface of the sun.”
Whether HELP’s trips are diving into underwater welding or the future of robotics, you can rest assured that Dr. Hammons, Ridge, is at the helm along with them with. Bringing an inquisitive smile and lots of laughs is part of the mechanics of keeping it running. “Life is too short to spend it wondering whether there was a better off ramp earlier on.”
Without the open doors and support found at so many of the Coastal Bend’s companies, HELP would have failed before it started. The local economy requires new interest and workers in their fields. Not only is HELP shining a light on new horizons for kids, but it is acting as a pipeline of new employees for our growing economy. “The health of this symbiotic relationship between the new guys coming up and the mom and pops is what will keep this community running.” Ridge explains. “Local companies are in dire need of people and we bring them.”
On a national stage, the need for skilled trades is at an all-time high. Changing the way people view certain jobs is half the battle. “I like to call trade jobs, gold collar jobs.”, says Hammons. Skills are certainly in high demand in the Coastal Bend, and lead to a rewarding and promising career. HELP rewrites the skilled trade job narrative by showing kids where these jobs lead and how they can step into those roles with the resources available.
HELP continues to move forward with dedication and cause. Thousands of students have had the opportunity to benefit from these programs over the years and the goal is that many more will. Supported by community leaders and entrepreneurs alike, this mission is solidly fueled. Just two years ago, HELP received an award for Educational Innovation from Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “We’ve got big plans and so does everyone else. The Governor asked us when we will go statewide!” said Hammons.
HELP is always looking for new businesses and new youth to involve in its program and views new connections as new friends. With the growing network germ line, HELP plans to exceed previous notions of slow growth and sprint into the future of tomorrow’s workforce.
If you would like more information on HELP and how you can participate, contact Ridge or call him at 361-815-6122. He might even answer if he’s not showing a kid the art of hang gliding or how to build R2D2.