Katherine Jones

Katherine Jones

“If you were to spend a day with Katherine Jones and were not the better for it, you would be one of life’s rare exceptions.”

Talk about setting high expectations. But when asked for an undeniable example of a champion, that’s how automotive technology instructor Robert Leone described the 22-year-old.

Then another message about Jones arrived. “She is the most decorated student Ozarks Technical Community College has ever had participate in SkillsUSA,” wrote Velynda Cameron, her former chapter advisor. “I have known Katherine for a little over two years through SkillsUSA, and the maturity, leadership skills and self-confidence she has gained are remarkable.”
Other details came to light. Jones, a recent graduate of the Springfield, Mo., college, was a postsecondary state officer for SkillsUSA and a competitor in the national Job Interview contest. She won so many state and district awards that “her modest apartment is literally a shrine to her accomplishments within the SkillsUSA organization,” Leone said.

Jones and Leone

Katherine Jones and Robert Leone.

Spending a whole day with Jones, as Leone (on the right in photo) suggested, wasn’t possible, but she was available the afternoon before the national Awards Ceremony. That turned out to be enough to brighten anyone’s day.

From the moment she confidently walks in with Cameron and shakes your hand, Jones is clearly a contender for the gold medal. But this is not your typical SkillsUSA success story. Jones’ life was full of obstacles, some so difficult she still can’t bring herself to talk about them. The ones she can share are painful enough.

“I came into this four years ago with no self-esteem, no self-confidence, and I was scared of the world,” Jones begins her story. “Everything scared me. Here it is four years later, and I’ve got 13 awards. I’ve competed in several different contests. This organization means the world to me. It has molded my future and has taught me that I can be somebody great.”

‘I had no confidence’

At 18, Jones completed a two-year graphic design program at Waynesville (Mo.) Technical Academy in one year. But “I didn’t know if I would make it to college, because people were telling me that I wasn’t smart enough,” she remembers.

Jones has a learning disability in math but says she was misdiagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) brought on by post-traumatic stress. “When I was a senior in high school, I decided to tell them I didn’t want to be in special services classes anymore.” (She later got a C in pre-algebra, she adds.)

The stress came from a devastating incident years earlier. Visiting a friend’s house in 1999, “I asked if I could pet her dog,” Jones explains. “I was 13, about 90 pounds. I put my left hand out to pet the dog, and the dog lunged at me. I put my left arm in front of my face, and he grabbed and mauled that arm. Then he went to my right arm. I actually have a hole in my muscle.”

Her injuries required more than 1,000 stitches, a repeat visit to the hospital when the wounds became infected, and in all, 96 days missed from high school for five reconstructive surgeries. As a result, “I had no confidence. I was so self-conscious about these scars,” she says. But “SkillsUSA is what pushed me to get through school,” and the college opportunity was a way for her to stay involved.

It took meeting Cameron, Leone and welding instructor Jim Bridwell for the student to “step out of my mold,” she remembers. “I know with my advisors, that was the first time somebody ever told me, ‘You did a great job.’ ”

Working on an associate’s degree in graphic design technology, she grew more involved in SkillsUSA over the past three years, with her greatest transformation in just the last one. “I was struggling to become a state officer. My advisors pitched in and just pushed me that extra [bit] to get the job done,” Jones adds tearfully.

She worked hard to pay back their support. Using what she’d learned in SkillsUSA’s Professional Development Program, Jones helped train Leone’s Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES) students.

“I was there from maybe 6 o’clock in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon,” she says. “I encouraged them and taught them etiquette. I’m really impassioned about teaching the skills of today. I mean, these kids don’t know how to be on their own. I didn’t. I was basically kicked out and expected to know how to cook, how to clean, you know, how to get a job.”

‘I thought I was going to die’

Her life was going well until the fall of 2007. At officer training at the Mid-America conference in Nebraska, “I started getting pains in my side,” Jones says. “December rolled around, the Christmas break, and I kept losing weight. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I kept feeling sick. I couldn’t eat.”

Katherine Jones and Velynda Cameron

Katherine Jones and Velynda Cameron.

Cameron “was one of my instructors, and she kind of knew what was going on with me,” Jones adds. The early childhood development instructor helped her through “seven vigorous tests” after the break. “They did everything from an ultrasound, a CAT scan, a dye contrast — anything you can imagine, they did. They couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

After losing 40 pounds, Jones was admitted to the hospital. One of the doctors “came in and said, ‘I think she’s faking it … She wants attention, and I think she’s anorexic,’” Jones remembers. Cameron called in a doctor who’d treated her own daughter. After one look from him, Jones was in surgery 15 minutes later — at which time her gallbladder burst.

Through it all, SkillsUSA was on her mind. During her illness, she’d still been able to win gold medals in three district competitions. “I didn’t think I would even make it to states, let alone nationals, because I thought I was going to die,” she says.

“She was one sick kid,” Cameron points out, “and missed two days of school or something?”

“I was released on Monday, and I was back at school Wednesday,” Jones agrees. “I was supposed to stay out of school for three weeks, but I had goals, and nothing — not even the surgery — was going to stop me.”

The state competitions were two and a half weeks after Jones was released from the hospital. As a state officer, “I was on stage in heels for three hours, putting medals around people’s necks,” she says. “I was at the point of exhaustion when I was done. The room was spinning.” But while on stage, she received her own gold medal in Job Interview as well as second place in Advertising Design and third in Advertising Design Technical Information.

“And at the end of the ceremony, I got to lead everybody in the SkillsUSA pledge, in front of a microphone,” Jones adds, in awe. She’d never thought she’d be able to handle a one-on-one interview, let alone “speaking in front of a whole crowd of people. And I knew at that moment, this was what I wanted to do.”

So, in preparation for the national Job Interview contest, she created a motivational speaker position. “My career objective would be to work for SkillsUSA,” Jones explains. “SkillsUSA is my family. I truly believe that without it, I would be out on the street with nothing, because going into a job interview and being able to be personable with somebody, I couldn’t have done that.”

Katherine Jones and her medal

Winning the national gold medal for the 2008 Job Interview contest.

Of course, the award for winning the national competition isn’t the offer of an actual job. It’s a gold medal — which is exactly what she received. A few hours after sitting down to talk, Jones was up on stage, tears streaming (pictured at right).

Having graduated from the technical community college, she is now enrolled at College of the Ozarks. Jones plans to earn an education degree and to “become a teacher at a technical college,” she says, “so I can be involved in SkillsUSA and someday be an advisor to students, the way mine have been for me.”

She’s in close touch with her former instructors. After helping Jones overcome her physical and emotional scars, they’re part of her changed life. “We’ve been through a lot together,” she says, nodding at Cameron. “She’s more like a mom to me than anything, and that’s what I need.

“Rob [Leone] explained it to me, ‘You nurture your kids, you show them the way. You give them roots, and then you give them wings.’ Well, I’ve got my wings. Now I need my roots. And that’s where these guys come in.”