Sometimes it’s the quiet voices that move people to change. Rick Aguilar was two years into a ten-year prison sentence for a drug conviction in Washington State when his eight-year-old son moved him to transform his life. And all that the boy had to do was ask some obvious questions.
Aguilar was angry then. The former gang member blamed everyone but himself for his sentence: his parole officer, the cops in Walla Walla, his parents.
“I felt like it was me against everybody and everybody against me,” he says. “I went into prison with a mindset to wreak and cause as much havoc as I could.” He was part of Sureños, an affiliation of Hispanic gangs that exists inside state and federal prisons, and that’s where his loyalties lay.
Tyler, six years old when his father was sent to prison, talked with him on the phone frequently. Kids that age “really don’t have a filter,” remembers Aguilar, who is 40 now. “So he would ask questions that other people wouldn’t. Like if I was ever going to be out for his birthday. Or if I was ever going to be out for Christmas. Or how come my release date kept changing? He couldn’t understand how his dad in prison could get in trouble, in prison. So then he would tell it to me like it is, and say I was still choosing my friends over him. Statements like that really started to make me think. ‘Where is this path that I’m choosing right now leading me? What’s the end going to be?’”
For many people in Rick Aguilar’s position, the end is predictable, and grim: They either return to prison or die back on the street. But his son’s innocent questions seem to have prepared him for a transformation. At the end of his second year at the Monroe Correctional Complex, he went to church. Though raised a Christian, Aguilar had drifted far from the fold when, in his words, he rededicated his life to the Lord.
But even God needs to be met halfway. After renouncing gang life, Aguilar applied to an automotive repair program for prisoners at high risk for recidivism and a demonstrated desire to change. There, an instructor told him about SkillsUSA. This national vocational skills training program is found in high schools and colleges, not prisons, but Rick was thinking ahead. On his release in 2016, he enrolled at Walla Walla Community College, found the local SkillsUSA chapter, and jumped right in.
Aguilar calls himself a “non-traditional college student”; another word for it might be exemplary. He studied full time, gaining an associate degree in collision repair; was elected the Associated Student Body President; raised money for SkillsUSA doing half-court shots at local basketball games, selling raffle tickets and pizza kits; and last year was awarded a mikeroweWORKS Foundation Travel Scholarship to attend the SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC) in Louisville as a state delegate. (As a delegate, Aguilar had a vote at SkillsUSA business meetings and trained for job interviews.) It is the leadership aspect of SkillsUSA, as much as the vocational, which drew him to the organization.
He’ll be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and business management next, with the goal of founding his own business and helping people like him become productive members of their communities. “I have a lot of friends who are getting out who also took automotive and who have a hard time finding employment,” he says. “I want to try and alleviate some of that, and open up a shop that hires convicted felons, give them a chance to get their feet on the ground. And maybe also do some sort of transitional housing for guys when they get out of prison.”
At NLSC, Aguilar met Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs host whose foundation campaigns for more skills training and offers scholarships to kids and adults seeking a career in the trades. An admirer of Rowe’s new show, Returning the Favor, Aguilar has found his own way of returning the favor through a local organization called Juntos, an activities-based program for at-risk kids. These are Walla Walla youngsters who are probably not that different than Aguilar was when he was in high school—though now the danger begins much earlier. “Most of the kids have either one or both parents incarcerated or involved with drugs or addiction,” he says. In junior high, some of the boys are already into drugs and criminal activities.
Aguilar is one of four adults in the program; three are former gang members and one is a sergeant for the Walla Walla police department. “’Juntos’ in Spanish means together,” he says, “and that’s what we’re really trying to do, is keep them together and let them have a sense of belonging.”
“They ask a lot of questions,” says Aguilar of the boys he now counsels. “They’re curious and they probably take what I say to heart a little more than, say, the police officer.” His first time he was arrested he was just 17—the age his son is now. His last arrest came after being chased through town and wrecking his car in a field. Standing before them, Aguilar is living proof that every run doesn’t need to end in a crash.
The Charles Koch Foundation supports SkillsUSA, a non-profit organization that provides professional development opportunities for students pursuing a skilled trade. This year, we had the honor of providing $25,000 in additional scholarships for students who qualified for but couldn’t afford to attend SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference.