ONEONTA, AL (WBRC) - Tammy Kelsoe is an EMT, and a volunteer firefighter, and she's a single mother, with three young children living at home.
"The hours of being on an ambulance is really hard for a single mom."
That's why she's taking advantage of a new program at Wallace State-Oneota that's encouraging women to go into welding. She grew up around welding. Her father and brother are welders, but when she wanted to go into it, they were dubious.
"I have already been interested in it but never knew there was a market for females," says Kelsoe.
Kelsoe is one of the three single mothers from Blount County who enrolled in welding classes at the Oneonta campus this semester thanks to a grant from the Women's Fund of Greater Birmingham. The initiative gives $5,000 scholarships to students to pay for childcare and living expenses while the women are in school, and Pell grants cover the cost of their classes and books. The women have the option of completing a four semester certificate program or getting an associate's degree which takes about six semesters.
Caitlyn Green is working towards the associates degree. "I always wanted to go to school. I never thought it would be for welding. In high school I wanted to do hair, I was kind of a girly girl, now I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I love it. It's awesome," says Green.
She's the mother of three children, all under the age of three. She's excited about the job opportunities, and pay scale when she finishes.
"I am a single mom with three kids and $10 an hour doesn't cut it. I don't get food stamps or government assistance, I do it by myself," says Green, who has been separated from her husband for a year. She admits it isn't easy, but she is also incredibly strong. She was working in a nursing home when she went into labor, but stayed to finish her shift before going to the hospital.
"There are days when you're a single mom that you wake up and you feel like I am not doing what I need to do for my kids, it's not good enough," explained Green with tears in her eyes.
The other mothers in the program understand that, and how hard it is to have to spend so much time away from your children, just to support them.
"Going back to school as a single mom and trying to work is very hard. Kids are only little once" says Kelsoe. "It's hard now but think of in a year after you put your hard work and dedication into what kind of life you can give your children after you do the hard work."
The connection between the women is evident as they worked together in welding lab. They are different ages, with different backgrounds, but what they have in common is much stronger.
"It's nice to have someone to talk to that understands what you're going through and how to help you cope with it and deal with it. Because it's not easy, it's hard. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. It's the best thing that ever happened to me," says Green.
The youngest of the mothers in the class is Allison Morton. She's 19 and the mother to an 18 month old boy. She was 7 months pregnant when she graduated from High School. She says the connection with the other women, is one of her favorite parts of the program.
"It's absolutely amazing. Me tammy and Caitlyn are so close we help each other out every day. It's a bond that will never be broken and I think we will always be friends no matter where this program takes us. We will always be thick as thieves," says Allison Morton.
Their instructor, Chris Posey, also understands the challenges these women face. He married a single mother.
"I am married to a single mother myself and I have heard all her horror stories about how hard it is raising a kid by yourself," says Posey.
That doesn't mean he gives them any special treatment though. "There aren't any men and women in here, we are all welders," says Posey.
Welding is a historically male dominated field. Only about 5% of the welders in the U.S. are women. Posey says that shouldn't stop women from getting into the industry, in fact it could help them land a job.
"Just being a woman will get their foot in the door. If I saw a resume come through with a woman's name on it would spark my interest a lot more than just Joe Schmo coming through," Says Posey.
Right now the country is facing a shortage of welders. The average age for a welder is 53 years old, and as they retire newer generations have not been stepping up to fill those positions.
"Some welders are trying to retire, only to be begged to come back for their jobs even if just for a year because employers can't find anyone to fill the positions" says Posey, and explains that it's a job that will be around forever. "Everything we do has been touched by a welder."
From roads and bridges to aerospace and military, just about every industry has welding component. "The career opportunities are endless," says Posey.
That's one reason why Kelsoe loves it ""I am actually building something. When I am in the industry I will be making stuff that people use every day." She also knows that breaking into a male dominated field, will pave the way for other women, and inspire her own daughters.
"I am hoping that me going into this field will prove to my daughters that you can do anything…. It doesn't matter if your male your female. So long as you work hard and accomplish your goals you can do whatever you put your mind to," says Kelsoe.
Green agrees "It doesn't matter who says you can't, all you have to do is do your best and work hard and strive to be better and you can do whatever you want."
They have advice for the other single mothers out there "you're stronger than you know. Keep your head up. Just keep going," says Morton.