MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — The welding shop in Skagit Valley College's Reeves Hall is a far cry from the prison cell Kevin Riley spent about five years in until his January 2012 release.
"It was more of a personal goal," Riley said of going back to school. "I think I had a chip on my shoulder and just wanted to prove that, at 43, I could do this. I wanted to be a good example for my daughter."
Now, Riley is on the cusp of getting his associate's degree in welding technology, with other certifications to boot. He has a 3.99 grade point average and was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
"I feel blessed to be able to do all of this stuff after sitting in a little cage for all these years," he said.
But despite the fact that he had a fairly well-paying job in Bellingham when he got out of prison, Riley said he wouldn't be where he is today without a little help. For him, that help came from SVC's Workforce Training and the statewide program called Basic Food Employment and Training (BFET).
The BFET program is offered through the state Department of Agriculture and provides financial support to residents who qualify for other assistance programs, like food stamps. The BFET program exists at community colleges across the state to provide job and skills training.
"It's a program that's shown through and through that it's working," said Alison Fernandez, SVC Workforce Grants Support supervisor. "These people are choosing, while they're on the system, to utilize the benefits that will actually get them off the system."
The purpose of BFET, Fernandez said, is to help non-traditional students succeed. By meeting with an adviser, like Fernandez, students are able to address the issues that might otherwise be their biggest financial barriers to achieving a degree or certificate.
"The more money a student has that is not loan based, the more successful they can be," Fernandez said.
For some, that means help with tuition. For others, it's money to pay for childcare or books. Or, in Riley's case, gas money to make up for his daily commute to the Mount Vernon campus from Oak Harbor.
"Because of this program, I have the skills now to walk into Janicki, walk into the refinery, walk into Boeing," Riley said about his job prospects.
In 2012, when he got out of prison, his daughter, then 19, moved to Oak Harbor from Michigan to be with him. Now with an 8-month-old son of her own, she is finishing her first quarter in the Allied Health program at SVC and also utilizing the BFET program.
Without it, Riley said, he doesn't know how they would have been able to pay for school for both of them, as well as living expenses.
"I probably would have sold my possessions — whatever tools I had — to get her through," Riley said. "Because of this program, we didn't have to."
Fernandez said there is no "typical" student enrolled in the BFET program. During any given quarter, SVC will have students between the ages of 18 and 70 accessing money through BFET.
"It's one of the only services for able-bodied adults that will allow them to go through training," Fernandez said.
With a whole new world of medicine and medical assisting at her fingertips Marianne Brisky, 50, feels optimistic about her future.
"Medical is needed everywhere," Brisky said. "So I feel pretty free about where I'm going to go. There's a lot of opportunities."
As a divorcee after 28 years of marriage, Brisky said going back to college became a necessity. The BFET program allowed her to focus on her studies and worry less about her financial situation.
"They'll support students who need a little extra help," Brisky said. "They want you to be able to become what you were intended to be."
Fernandez said they have yet to turn anyone away from the program. And everyone involved leaves the college thriving, getting jobs and getting off basic food.
"I don't want to be on assistance the rest of my life, or to have to be taken care of," Brisky said. "They know that they're going to be able to help you succeed and you're going to be able to give back."
Until recently, the BFET program existed only in Washington state. However, a recent federal farm bill which passed in February will see the program expand to other parts of the country.