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First Female Class Graduates From Walton County Jail's Welding Program

Before this week, Walton County Jail’s six-week welding certification program only consisted of men. But on Wednesday, the first all-female group graduated, passing the torch on to more inmates in the future. 

The program is offered in partnership with Northwest Florida State College. Classes are held outside in a trailer on the jail campus. Previously, it was only open to men. 

“The Sheriff has two daughters, and I have four granddaughters, part of that did enter into the conversation.” 

That’s Cory Godwin, Walton County’s director of jail operations, sharing some of the rationale behind adding women into the mix.

“We want to make opportunities for the males and the females to the degree that we can…and we knew based on that background the capabilities of these young ladies, that they would do just as well, and I will go so far as to say they did better. They’re more teachable.” 

Being a part of the pioneering group of women is “amazing,” says Michelle Grindstaff. She adds that no one, especially women, should be intimidated by learning the trade. 

“It can be done,” she said. “Nothing can stand in your way if you’re willing to work, and work hard at it. It’s available for you. (It’s) a lot of self-restraint it’s a lot of learning. You have to be open-minded and willing to learn take constructive criticism and just try your best.”

Some women in the program had never touched a blowtorch until the welding class.That was the case for Shauna Gilbert.

Gilbert worked in IT at Booz Allen Hamilton for 10 years before she became addicted to pain killers and lost control of her life. 

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Credit Walton County Sheriff's Office
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The graduating class smiles with Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.

“A doctor actually got me addicted in the beginning,” she said. “Fast forward 15 years later, I was addicted to heroin and spiraling out of control and lost pretty much everything I’ve worked for in the past 15 years.”

Jail, Gilbert says, has been a “very good wakeup call.” Now sober, she’s interested in a possible career in robotics using her IT background and new welding skills.

She’s even found the program to be therapeutic in a way. 

“There are days whenever you’re just sitting in the pod and you just want to come out here and weld because it gets you away from all the craziness inside the pod.” 

According to Godwin, who oversees the program at the jail, initiatives like the welding class are part of the jail’s mission to give inmates better opportunities outside of incarceration. 

“It’s always been Sheriff’s Adkinson’s vision that we not only just secure humans as part of operations, but try to build better people. We’re trying to focus on employability, not just self-improvement or academics, but what’s employable.”

And there are a lot of opportunities for female welders, says John Greenhalgh, program coordinator for workforce welding at Northwest Florida State College. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2019 was over $42,000. 

“Women in the welding workforce is truly a huge demand, NASA has been asking for welders, MarsX has been asking for welders and predominately women,” he said. I came from a defense contract background they need more women in there desperately.” 

Beyond the technical knowledge, the program has been good for inmates’ overall attitudes. Jessica Williams, another inmate in the welding program, says time spent in the class has helped teach learn to control her emotions. 

“Self-control, self-control. I didn’t want to be a negative to anyone else. With your negative energy, it will probably rub off on someone else and that’s not good.”

Williams admits there were times when she wanted to give up. But, the program gave her something to work toward. 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
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Women welders are in high demand with opportunities said program coordinator John Greenhalgh.

“During this time, my momma passed from the coronavirus she died on the 12th,” she said “And it was hard dealing with it. It helped me cope with it. Sitting in the dorm would’ve broken me down more.” 

“We’ve all definitely tried to support each other.” 

Again, Shauna Gilbert. She says working alongside other women there was a sense of camaraderie in the class. Everyone wanted to see their peers succeed. 

“Give tips if someone found something that would work for us, a specific voltage we were using, we’d share that with the others.” 

As the women each look forward to life on the outside, the course was a reminder not to be ashamed of where you come from. Program participant Michelle Grindstaff summed it up this way.

“Coming to jail is not necessarily a stopping point in life. That doesn’t have to define who you are.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.