I have found nothing more rewarding than my life’s work: empowering others. Over four decades, I’ve been a social worker, counselor, college professor, administrator, director, and mother. In all those roles, I learned the best way to help others was to teach them to help themselves.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania—as in, “turn right at the pig farm to get to my house!” I experienced firsthand how opportunities, and the lack thereof, impacted our tiny community. My teenage mother worked at a factory to provide for me, while my grandmother helped raise me. She endured shift work, low wages, no benefits, and an absent husband. I so admired my mother’s perseverance while raising me alone those first four years.
These experiences cultivated my life’s ambition to provide rural Pennsylvanians the skills to create their own opportunities—and now I’ve been given the opportunity to work on that mission full time.
Our Brockway Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT) is an environment of beauty and hope—and as the executive director, I’ve contributed all my passions. Every single one of our students, regardless of background, is here because he or she has embraced the empowerment of education and training. They understand how vital it is to enter the job market with valued, in-demand skills.
We’re the real front line of progress in Pennsylvania: our graduates earn decent wages with benefits, and they work reasonable hours in agreeable conditions.
Our students are the proof: hard work plus opportunity creates empowerment. What a courageous leap they have made—to participate in the American dream!
Life can look bleak when we don’t embrace our own empowerment. So many capable Pennsylvanians—hundreds of thousands without any kids or disabilities—decide not to work. They rely on food stamps and other benefits, vital programs that need to be prioritized for those who can’t work.
There is no shame in getting help when you need it. Most of my adult students begin the program with government benefits. But as many of our students will tell you, it is life-changing to experience the independence that comes from a well-paying job.
I’ve heard the argument that it’s “unfair” when work requirements are placed on state assistance programs. Our students prove the opposite: work is transformative, and I can prove people are already benefiting through being incentivized to become educated, employed, and empowered.
BCAT is designed to provide a means to self-sufficiency—to enable people to be independent of the ever-changing government welfare policies and be in charge of their own financial futures and lives.
Our students work extremely hard to train for their jobs and overcome rural Pennsylvania’s unique barriers, so empowerment becomes their way of life. It’s common for Pennsylvanians to grow dependent on government, but BCAT students aren’t letting opportunities pass them by. With families to take care of, the stakes are too high to remain stuck in a cycle of dependency. Many of our students come from generations of poverty, and breaking this cycle for future generations is a new legacy of self-sufficiency to pass on.
I’m proudest of my life’s work when I help others succeed. The BCAT environment—and our focus on the dignity of work—understands that people are our greatest asset. We honor and respect each individual so they can rewrite their own personal story and pursue their own American dream.
Rural Pennsylvanians aren’t helpless in today’s fast-paced world. We can train for skills in any field, earn the wages we deserve, and work in jobs we love—and at BCAT, we can finish a training program debt-free. In the six years since opening, nearly 150 students have already leapt at the incredible chance to study at BCAT—the chance to flee from dependence and poverty toward self-sufficiency and independence.
Deborah Heigel is executive director at the Brockway Center for Arts and Technology, the first rural workforce training initiative to be affiliated with the National Center for Arts and Technology.