Alabama native sings over second chance

Terrance Cummings
Terrance Cummings, 23, started singing at age eight at his church in Banks, Ala., the hometown he left, he says, because there are not job opportunities.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Terrance Cummings issues a personal invitation for the event at 6:30 at the St. Paul Job Corps center at Snelling and Arlington Street across from the State Fair grounds. "If you're a soloist, if you've got a choir group, if you can play music, just come out and celebrate with us," he says.

Of course, you don't have to perform. You can listen to Terrance Cummings and the group he used to sing with. Cummings invited his old choir from a Job Corps center in Kentucky led by E. J. Simmons to come celebrate his graduation. "He called... and said, 'We want to have something big,' and of course we loaded up the family and came on up," Simmons says.

The leader
E. J. Simmons leads the Earle C. Clements Kentucky Job Corps singers as they travel the country.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Simmons says he and all the vocalists in the group are Job Corps alums or students. He calls them products of being given a second chance.

Terrance Cummings has good memories of his time with the group before he selected a course of study at the St. Paul center. "E. J. picks people who have the ability, want to, but never have given the chance to," he says.

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Job Corps is one of the few Great Society programs left over from President Lyndon Johnson's administration.

David McKenzie
St. Paul Job Corps center director David MacKenzie says most of the students are from single parent families living in poverty.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The 62,000 students at 122 Job Corps campuses around the country range in age from 16 to 24. To qualify they must come from families living in poverty. Most didn't graduate from high school. Job Corps helps them finish their work for a high school diploma or a GED certificate and they take their vocational training courses in a range of fields.

St. Paul Job Corps center director David MacKenzie says nearly all the students have to be reassured they can learn. "(They) haven't done well in public schools, they've fallen significantly behind their peers in terms of their learning levels, so we really have to reframe the entire educational experience for them," he says.

Billions of federal dollars have been cut from youth development and education programs in this country over the past decade. Job Corps has survived even though the current administration proposed cuts.

Job Corps Center
The St. Paul Job Corps center weathered strong community opposition when it opened on the campus of a former religious college.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Congress responded by increasing Job Corps funds.

Part of the reason, David McKenzie speculates, is all of the Job Corps centers are run by private for profit companies. They're required to show graduates actually finish a course of study and find a job.

McKenzie says nearly 90 percent of the St. Paul center's graduates find work.

Terrance Cummings is from Banks, a town of 224 people in rural Alabama. He started singing at church when he was eight years old.

Kentucky connection
The vocalists joining Terrance Cummings are from Morganfield, Kentucky.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Later, he attended a nearby state college but when that didn't work out he eventually found his way to the Job Corps center in St. Paul.

Cummings says he hopes to land a job as a ticket clerk with Amtrak.

He's not a professional vocalist, however Cummings says singing says requires the discipline that keeps him going. "We might have done things in our past that we don't like but we are trying to do better every day," he says.

In addition to looking for a job after graduation, Cummings will try keep alive the choral group he started at the St. Paul Job Corps center modeled after the group he sang with in Kentucky.