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She’d been putting others’ needs ahead of her own for more than 25 years. So when this busy SkillsUSA advisor needed a portfolio pronto, how could she find the time?

By E. Thomas Hall

Linda Shelton has collected many honors in her 25 years as a SkillsUSA advisor. She’s a published author, heads up her school’s career and technical department, and helps her chapter run 10 community service projects every year.

The cosmetology instructor’s work has gained her another distinction. “I think I’m the queen of ways and means. You name it, I have done it,” Shelton says. As proof, she pulls out a car-wash photo. “We made a lot of money that day because a lot of people came by to see me get wet.”

At her Centerville, Tenn., high school, the administration “helps us every way they can in talking about us and building us up. That’s all, I guess, really they can do right now because of the money situation. I’m sure that’s the way it is in every school, but I think just to be proud of us means more than anything in the world.”

So while honors are nice and funding would help, what’s more important is “the fact that you’re recognized that you do care,” Shelton says. “I care. I love the other teachers, and I’m a mentor. The whole school comes to me, and I help them.”

Listen to Shelton for a while, and you’ll hear that word love a lot. “I love teaching. I love my students, above all. I love community service,” she rattles off in quick succession. “I love learning.”

When she arrived at Hickman County High School 20 years ago, “nobody was doing anything with SkillsUSA,” Shelton remembers. But, counting in a few years spent previously at another school, she’s had 100 percent of her students as members for a quarter of a century. Nine of them have been medalists at the SkillsUSA Championships. As her school’s lead advisor, “my part is to get everybody involved and let them buy into the program.” Whatever it takes.

“See Diane Sawyer?” she asks, pointing to another photo. “That’s me in a wig. I was begged; they said I needed to be Diane Sawyer. We had a faculty play; I don’t know why, but we were so stupid, we did it. And we did it again, and I got to be a wombat!”

“I tell the students, ‘Take something in your life that’s been a tragedy, pull it around and make something good of it. If you don’t, it’ll eat you alive.’ ”

Shelton has many photos, certificates, news clippings and other documented memories on hand because she’s moving to a new high school this fall and starting another SkillsUSA program. “So I had to take all my ‘SkillsUSA’ off the wall,” she explains, holding a very thick book.

While her collection is impressive, it’s how the book was put together that’s touching. Her state doesn’t require cosmetology students to have a portfolio, but Shelton does. “I insist my students do one so when they go into industry, they have that résumé and they have their work to show what they’ve done in my class and through SkillsUSA,” she explains. When the students found out she’d been nominated for SkillsUSA Advisor of the Year, “they insisted they make me a portfolio.” Their gesture brought her to tears.

Now, flipping through the pages, Shelton pauses on an article she wrote about an unforgettable student who was killed in a car accident right after she received her cosmetology license.

“Her mom put the diploma right beside her casket, and she buried her with it,” Shelton recalls sadly. The student had a troubled past and was into drugs. “But before she left my program, I had her clean. I took the extra time.”

Many of her students have special needs. Shelton says she spends extra time with them, too — and the $70 fee for the cosmetology license, which “a lot of times comes out of my pocket for them to take it more than once.” She’s very involved with Special Olympics, and for 14 years has assisted with the Action Skills competition at the SkillsUSA Championships.

Her father died from a brain tumor, so Shelton is also very involved in cancer charities. “I tell the students, ‘Take something in your life that’s been a tragedy, pull it around and make something good of it. If you don’t, it’ll eat you alive.’ ”

Turning the page, Shelton comes to another charity, one she calls “the love of my life.” After losing her remarried mother to domestic violence, Shelton became an advocate for its prevention. This year, she is chairing the Women Are Safe organization. Her students redecorate a safe house and provide supplies for the women and children living there. “This is my healing. I choose to take bad stuff and turn it into good,” she says.

Shelton can add another page to her book — in June, she was honored as SkillsUSA’s top advisor (for other regional nominees, see below). Now, moving to a new school, she reflects on starting over after 27 years as a teacher.

“If I go 30, that’s fine; if I leave next year, it’ll be fine,” she says. “But when I feel like I have nothing else to offer those kids, I’m gone. I can always go back in industry if I need to. But right now, I think this is where I need to be. I believe I was meant to be right here with these kids, right in the county I’m in, because of the problem kids we do have and trying to save some lives and maybe make their lives a little bit better.”

Gerald Suggs is a 12-year SkillsUSA advisor at Davies Career and Technical High School in Warwick, R.I. When a bright ninth-grader walked into his social studies class, Suggs pushed him to get involved … all the way to being elected a national officer. “He’s done remarkable stuff,” Suggs says of Ed Soto, who’s now a financial analyst on assignment in Mexico City. To get Soto to complete SkillsUSA’s Professional Development Program through Level 4, the teacher suggested both of them work on it. Suggs went on to earn the International Degree, PDP’s highest, at this year’s national conference.

After 18 years of having 100-percent SkillsUSA membership in her cosmetology program, it’s hard for Jan Garrett-DeSimone to pick one success story out of many. Just last year, four students had their professional licenses before graduating from Southern Nevada Vocational Technical Center in Las Vegas. “That’s huge,” the instructor says. “They’re able to go out there and make a very comfortable living in that first year.” The larger community is affected as well. For a small fee that only covers supplies, nearly 1,400 at-risk and special needs students receive her chapter’s styling services every year.

The closest dealership is 40 miles away from Seminole (Texas) High School, but automotive instructor Bob Summer finds his students work. Early in his 20-year teaching career, Summer had one who, as the oldest of four children, was helping support his family. He couldn’t afford to move away for a John Deere apprenticeship, but after Summer explained that to the local dealer, the student got a full scholarship. “He’s come back and is working for the same dealer,” Summer says. “He’s the service manager. They’ve got six dealerships now, and he’s over all six of them. He’s recruiting my students.”

“We have a lot of displaced workers.When you can help them redirect from a factory job to a skill that they can go anywhere and use, and make a living and support their family, they’re the ones who really make a difference,” says masonry instructor Don Borchert. A six-year SkillsUSA advisor at Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore, he remembers “Chris,” a 35-year-old father of four who, working overtime, “was just running out of gas.” Chris was ready to quit the program just before a final two-week internship with a contractor. After Borchert got him to stay, he was hired on the spot.

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SkillsUSA Champions | Fall 2007 | Volume 42, No. 1
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