A-B Tech, ABCCM partnership brings classes to veterans’ doorstep

JOB PREPAREDNESS: Johnny Ko teaches industrial sewing classes at the A-B Tech satellite campus at Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. Ko demonstrates how to use a single needle Juki industrial sewing machine in a classroom. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Some veterans find it difficult to adjust after military service. They might lack skills that lead to civilian jobs, and in some cases, that leads to homelessness. Recognizing those challenges, A-B Tech and the nonprofit Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry partnered to put classrooms right where they’re needed: in two transitional shelters.

“To my knowledge, there’s not another program partnership like this where you have a college or university actually going out to a facility for the homeless,” says Tim McElyea, director of Veterans Restoration Quarters, an ABCCM facility that provides housing, skill-building and other support for veterans. “This is pretty cutting-edge stuff.”

A-B Tech offers a culinary program at Veterans Restoration Quarters and several other classes at Transformation Village, ABCCM’s 100-bed shelter for women. Residents, veterans and nonveterans alike can ride the ministry’s intercampus van to classes at either location.

Access is everything

Transformation Village has five A-B Tech classrooms in a bright, airy education wing connected to the shelter. The wing also has a front entrance for other A-B Tech students. Anyone enrolled may take classes at the two campuses at the shelters.

The programs currently available at Transformation Village are nursing, industrial sewing and construction. Those industries have hiring needs locally and thus can provide trainees with “living-wage employment,” says McElyea. “You can walk in and basically come out with a new career after taking [A-B Tech courses],” McElyea continues. The goal is to provide “a lot quicker access and opportunity to people to get into living-wage employment.”

The classrooms are right downstairs from Transformation Village’s other offerings: meals, child enrichment, Bible study and peer support. “It’s made easily accessible opportunities that would be a lot more difficult for our veterans to be able to get to,” McElyea explains. “A lot of folks that are homeless don’t have transportation, so certainly, if you’re homeless it’s harder to get to school.”

Marine Corps veteran Daniel Conway struggled upon his return from deployment and eventually found stability in his life after pursuing an education. He completed his community health worker certification at A-B Tech online and now works for Veterans Services of the Carolinas, a division of ABCCM. He says for veterans who are affiliated with ABCCM, “the accessibility, the comfort, being somewhere they’re familiar with already” makes their classrooms at the shelters all the more inviting.

THRIVING: Daniel Conway served for six years in the Marine Corps. After struggling with substance use and mental health issues, he was homeless and lived at the Veterans Restoration Quarters, a transitional housing shelter at Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. He trained as a community health worker through A-B Tech and now works at Veterans Services of the Carolinas. Photo courtesy of ABCCM


A-B Tech’s industrial sewing classes (it uses the term “boot camp”) are taught by Johnny Ko. A former dentist who retired to Asheville, Ko is a lifelong hobbyist tailor who first donated excess fabric to ABCCM and then began teaching.

The Carolina Textile District, an association of textile manufacturers in Western North Carolina, provides A-B Tech’s curriculum. The three-week boot camp instructs students on two Juki industrial sewing machines: a single-stitch and a serger. In addition to classroom instruction, students have visited Diamond Brand Gear, which sells tents, hiking and camping gear; Mills Manufacturing, maker of military parachute systems; Sugarcane Studios, which provides custom sewing and alterations; and SewCo., a design studio and sewing manufacturer.

Program graduates have landed jobs at manufacturers as well as at companies offering reupholstering and alterations, Ko says.

Students don’t need to commit to boot camp classes without trying it first. On Thursday evenings, the A-B Tech classroom at Transformation Village offers a sewing class that anyone from ABCCM can attend. Ko says the intention is to introduce industrial sewing as a career in a low-pressure setting.

College dreams

Denise Montgomery, director of educational services at Transformation Village, says she outlines the available educational opportunities at A-B Tech with every shelter resident within their first two weeks of arrival.

She says veterans who have lived at Transformation Village have a variety of educational backgrounds. Some have college degrees and want training in a new field. Montgomery recalls one veteran who was just a few credits short of a doctorate.

A former teacher and school principal, Montgomery enjoys helping people enroll in college for the first time, especially those who say, “‘Oh my gosh, I never thought I’d become a college student!’”

The veterans she’s worked with are “extremely motivated” to take advantage of the educational opportunities presented by the partnership. “I love being here and helping them fulfill a dream that they have is quite rewarding,” she says.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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