For three recent graduates, joining the Grundy Area Vocational Center’s welding program was the best decision they made for their futures.
For Nick Lerma, recent Morris Community High School graduate, it took a little while for him to realize the opportunity he had in front of him.
“I wasn’t into welding really, and my teacher (Jim Cebulski) helped me bring my head out of the gutter, and said pay attention to what is right in front of you,” Lerma said. “And then I realized I wanted to be like everyone else with their hoods on the wall.”
The welding hoods represent competitions the GAVC students have won. After he began focusing, Lerma became one of those winners, along with his peers Tyler Yard, Morris Community High School graduate, and Zach Sackman, Minooka High School graduate.
These three students took the top three places at their most recent competition last month, Joliet Junior College’s High School welding competition.
The competition had more than 70 competitors from numerous area high schools, including Lincoln Way West, Lincoln Way Central, Joliet Central, Joliet West, Wilco and Illinois Valley vocational centers. Awards and prizes were given to the top five winners and all five were awarded to GAVC students.
“This round of students was the most dominating round I’ve ever had,” Cebulski said.
“Every year we learn changes we can do to do a little better, so we changed things up from the year before, and these kids wanted to listen,” he said.
At the JJC competition, Yard took first place, Sackman second and Lerma third.
All three of the welding students are currently waiting to see if they were accepted to the Local 597 Pipefitters union for apprenticeships. They expect to find out in July.
“This was my first time winning first place,” Yard said. “It felt great because I put in a lot of time and effort to get first place at our last competition. It felt really rewarding.”
He, like his fellow welding students, credits Cebulski’s teaching and dedication for his award-winning skills. Yard said his teacher goes above and beyond staying with them after hours sacrificing time with his own family and bringing in other professional welders to learn from.
“He brings a lot of teachings from the real world into the class,” he said.
Some of the other professional welders who influenced these students were also past GAVC students, Lerma said, including Brian LaRou, Chris Ingram, Tony Veronda and Tommy Mudro.
“Mr. Cebulski and those guys helped me so much and taught me more about life rather than just welding,” Lerma said.
In addition to the JJC competition, GAVC welders competed in the Midwest Technical Institute High School Welding Contest in late May in Peoria, Ill. About 40 students from various vocational schools participated, Cebulski said. GAVC brought five welders who all placed. Lerma took first, Sackman took second, Kaidon Hibler, a recent graduate from Gardner South Wilmington High School, took third, Yard took fourth and Robert Stazel, a graduate of Minooka Community High School took fifth.
In April, the students also went to the state welding competition, Skills USA, in Springfield. The same five kids took the same top five spots. To qualify for this competition, welding students across the state had to take a written exam, Cebulski said. The top 20 test takers get to compete. Of the 20, 17 were GAVC students.
“I think the competitions are important because they put a lot of time in, so the reward is to see how they stack up against everybody else,” Cebulski said. “This is their reward for all their hard work.”