When Wendy Gaston was recovering from a drug addiction at a halfway house a year and a half ago, her self-esteem was so low she did not believe that she would ever be able to learn a job skill and support herself.
But Gaston fought back and, thanks to the Urban League Automotive Training Center, is employed as a specialist in brakes, front ends and alignment at a Willowbrook auto repair shop.
"I have a lot of confidence today," Gaston said during a recent graduation ceremony at the training center.
"I'm certified, I'm a female in a mostly male profession. . . . It makes me want to give more than 100%. My ego gets knocked down sometimes, but I'm learning character, perseverance, humility. The glass is always half full."
Gaston was the one alumna addressing the latest graduating class and an audience full of political and business dignitaries at the training center, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. The program certifies students in auto repair skills including brakes and exhaust, air conditioning, tires and suspension, and automotive detailing. The courses last between three and six months.
The Crenshaw district center, a joint venture between the Urban League and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., has trained 100 students and placed more than 70% in auto repair centers countywide, including chains such as Sears, Goodyear, Montgomery Ward, Jiffy Lube and Pep Boys. Starting mechanics make between $5 and $15 an hour, and with experience can earn much more, said center spokesman Walter Reynolds.
Urban League President John Mack said the training center is one of the few efforts begun after the Los Angeles riots that is living up to its commitment to improve the local economy.
"There has been a lot of talk about what has not been done, but this training center has made it happen . . . " he said. "We're here for the long haul."
After walking across the stage and accepting diplomas from center manager John Saia, the 57 graduates jubilantly held aloft framed certificates and cheered.
Elias Aklilu, a former mechanic who completed the air-conditioning course, said he will be able to keep pace in the increasingly complex field of auto repair.
"Not only do they upgrade skills, they give you guidance in terms of setting up your own business and networking," he said. "It's a great bunch of people, a great program. I'm glad I took advantage of it."