BRISTOL, Tenn. — Beyond the roar of NASCAR’s engines rests an oasis just within the wooded Cherokee National Forest. City lights cast nary a glow upon the site that houses Jacobs Creek Job Corps.

Futures of generations of directionless youth were and are shaped within the bucolic setting.

“When I got here, I was on a seventh-grade level of math,” said current student Zach Patterson, 20, of Cullman, Alabama. “Now eight months later, I’m on a 12th grade level.”

Welcome to Jacobs Creek Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, just off U.S. Highway 421 and miles removed from Bristol’s city limits.

“This is our 50th year,” said Mary McMenamin, who serves on Jacobs Creek’s 50th anniversary planning committee.

To mark its half-century, Jacobs Creek officials welcomed students past and present to a slate of ceremonies Friday afternoon.

Central among the festivities, they buried a canister-like time capsule into a plot of well-manicured lawn.

“We made the time capsule ourselves,” McMenamin said. “We’re getting each trade and academic to put something into the time capsule.”

Walter West serves as the corps’ center director. Hours before its ceremonial burial, the open and empty time capsule rested on a table in West’s office.

“Today is a humongous day for us,” he said.

Kids and young adults ages 16 to 24 from states including Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi come to Jacobs Creek free of charge in search of sound direction en route to better lives. A few have ventured even farther.

“I’m from Kingston, Jamaica,” said Venance Murishi, 21. “I came here to make myself better. I never got into trouble, but I dropped out of school.”

Jacobs Creek operates as one of 125 Job Corps centers nationwide.

“There are only 28 of us who are with the forest service,” West said.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal spawned a litany of public works programs designed to get Americans back to work while also providing valuable training to enable future employment opportunities. The Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933, was one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The CCC birthed the Job Corps in 1964.

Students at Jacobs Creek are taught a mix of academics and trades. Murishi, who has been here for one year and one month, is working toward becoming a professional machine operator.

“I’m working hard, doing the best I can,” Murishi said. “I love it here.”

Generations of past students, including Sherise Foster, 27, rerouted from lives on the brink to lives of success. She journeyed to Jacobs Creek in 2009.

“I’m originally from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina,” said Foster. “I came here to get my life back on track.”

Four years and jobs in New York and Alaska later, she works with the U.S. Forest Service in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

“She’s just a shining star,” West said, beaming. “She’s a success story.”

Moments before the time capsule was laid to rest, officials gathered at the entrance to Jacobs Creek’s administrative building. A plaque atop a stately monument, around which daisies bloomed, was dedicated in honor of the late James “Buddy” King.

King, a former Sullivan County Commissioner, served Jacobs Creek for many years. Officially, he was on the organization’s Community Relations Council.

“He loved these kids,” West said. “He said God put it in his heart to help these kids.”

King never earned a dime at Jacobs Creek.

“The love that he had for these students was unbelievable,” West said during the dedication of the marker to honor King. “I don’t want to say too much because I will choke up.”

And then he did.

“I know some people say, ‘What do y’all do up here?’” West said, choking up as waves of students looked on and then applauded.

An arm’s length away stood Foster, living testimony to what Jacobs Creek can do for its students.

“It’s a blessing to be a part of this program,” Foster said.

Several ticks of the clock and a few steps later, an enclave of folks congregated around the time capsule’s burial site. The time capsule, which looked like a large pill, rested on a bench along a sloping hillside. A creek gently cascaded amid a valley several feet below.

“All the work you see [at the site] was done by the students,” West said.

Items including a Job Corps student handbook, student photos, a cell phone, badges and such were squeezed into the time capsule. Duly stuffed and summarily sealed, it was then placed in the ground shortly past noon.

“It will be opened in 50 years,” West said. “I’m 50. I told my students that I’ll have to be 100 to see it opened.”

West joked, laughed and then softened to a smile.

“I’m proud of what these kids do,” West said. “I call them my kids. I have two kids at home. I’ve got 170 more here at Jacobs Creek.”

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Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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