By DONNA HEALY
With effort, a goal that seems unattainable sometimes comes within reach.
In December 2011, Chris Bilbrey was jobless and felt as if he were slipping back to a time when he had nothing productive going on in his life.
“As a teen, I was in trouble with the police, family, drugs,” he said. “I felt myself starting to slip back towards that. It was not really having anything to do, not having any productiveness in my life.”
Without a high school degree, the 21-year-old had worked a series of low-wage jobs. Although he was an honor roll student in grade school, he stopped doing his homework in middle school. He started ninth grade at four different high schools, but never made it past the first semester.
When Bilbrey applied for food stamps, his caseworker steered him toward the Youth Employment Program at the Human Resources Development Council. He was just shy of the program’s cut-off age.
The first step was to get his GED. After four months of studying six hours a day with an Alternative Education instructor, he passed the test.
“They just gave me that little shove to really apply myself and do something,” he said.
Because he loved working on cars, he was matched with a job as a shop hand at City Cab in Billings, helping to maintain a fleet of cabs and shuttle buses.
“When I have a wrench in my hand and I get dirty and oily and greasy, I get happy,” he said. “I like making a mess and putting stuff together.”
To help pay his bills, Bilbrey found a second job working weekends.
“Chris had the motivation, and he’s done pretty dang good,” said Barry Willson, who co-owns the cab company with his brother, Rodney. Both men have children about Bilbrey’s age. During the last four years they have taken on a series of workers through the Youth Employment Program.
“We make them work hard, but we also help them get focused and go in a direction,” Barry Willson said. His military background helps him show those workers how to approach problems in a realistic way. He and his brother tend to “tag team” the youths in the program.
“Barry has definitely taken me under his wing and shown me a lot,” Bilbrey said. “He’s shown me how to take care of things in your life, to make your life flow better.”
This fall, Bilbrey hopes to enter a two-year college to become a certified diesel mechanic.
“It seems surreal, because I didn’t think I could get to this point this quickly,” he said. “At HRDC, they helped me move forward in life. They helped me get my GED and get a job. They encouraged me to do the right things in life.”
Barry Willson says, “When we first got involved (with the Youth Employment Program), it was pretty selfish. We wanted to get some cheap labor at a very little cost.”
Since then, they’ve become more committed to trying to give those young workers a helping hand.
“We also have raised kids. We’ve seen some kids on the verge of going downhill.”
During the four years they have been involved with the program, about a dozen kids have come through the shop and the office. Between the shop and office they have had as many as six kids at a time.
Some have worked for three months to a year. Some needed more help than HRDC could give them. Some have graduated and done well. Others have relapsed into their old ways.
“They’re no longer kids,” Willson said. “When they come in to work here, we tell them this is a public area. You are an adult; you will be responsible as an adult.”
“Some have no goal orientation,” he added. “They’re kind of living from day to day.”
First goal: to be to work on time. “I tell ’em, ‘You push one of the dominoes over, all of them are going to go over. If you go drinking at night, you might not make it to work the next morning. It has to start with that first domino. I’m ex-military, that helps me confront them and help them learn to deal with things in a realistic way. Me and my brother tag team them real well.’”