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Finding Their Spark

People

High school students are champion welders

STORY BY JUSTIN JARRETT I PHOTOS BY RITTERBECK PHOTOGRAPHY

At a time when good-paying jobs seem more and more difficult to find and the cost of traditional college education is increasing at an alarming rate, the prospect of technical education continues to gain steam.

And the students at May River High School seem to have taken notice.

The 6-year-old school’s welding program is busting at the seams (pun intended) and churning out talented students each year who are ready to walk into good-paying jobs right after graduation. 

They’re also winning awards and scholarships and making headlines.

May River senior Tyler Childress, the son of welding teacher Brad Childress, took first place in the Welding Sculpture competition at the SkillsUSA South Carolina State Leadership and Skills Contest in March, and junior Gabe Juarez earned a $17,900 scholarship to attend Arclabs Welding School in Upstate South Carolina by winning a competition in Charleston.

The younger Childress started paying more attention to his dad’s welding when he was 5 or 6 and took up the torch himself at age 7. He built a barbecue grill on commission, then started doing paid repairs on lawn mower decks with his dad. He was inspired by other May River students to explore welding sculpture.

“Watching kids like Sam Long back in 2011 whenever he won nationals for the sculpture competition,” Tyler recalled, “that kind of pushed me in the direction of wanting to figure out, like, what kind of sculpture I want to build.”

Now he has a state title and will take his incredibly detailed replica of his Jeep Wrangler shrouded by Palmetto trees to the national convention.

Juarez came to welding a bit differently. 

“I went to a place where you could do VR welding, and I had never really thought about it before, but I did it and really enjoyed it,” Juarez said. “It was awesome. So, I came here and tried it out, and now I really, really love it.” 

Juarez says it was “the simplicity” of welding that first drew him in, but he has since come to understand the nuance that he initially overlooked. He still digs the flames and sparks, though, and he enjoys the focus and attention to detail required, which also applies to another passion — Juarez is a state champion wrestler for the Sharks and an avid martial artist.

It has also given Juarez and numerous other students an outlet to put their creativity to work. Welding goes well beyond the simple melding of joints, especially in the May River program. Brad Childress wanted to be a mechanic until his brother helped him land a welding job, and he was immediately hooked and happy to pull in healthy hourly wages doing something he loved. 

He made the pivot to education in 2004 and spent a decade teaching at the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence (ACE) before starting the welding curriculum at Battery Creek. 

After one year at BCHS, he joined the staff at the newly opened May River High School in 2016.

Tyler earned a scholarship to the Tulsa Welding School’s Jacksonville campus when he won a competition that attracted talented young welders from along the East Coast, but he elected to gift it to another classmate because he plans to follow his dad’s lead. 

He already has a well-paying job lined up after graduation and plans to work a few years before moving to a teaching environment to pass on his talents and passions to another generation. 

“When I became a teacher is when I really discovered my passion for welding, and the doors were open,” Brad Childress says. “You could do art, you could do fabrication, you could do structural welds, and you could just kind of go where your heart led you. And these guys have pumped that up, too.”

“These guys” are the 56 students currently filling up the 14 welding booths at the school across all four blocks of the day — Childress forgoes a planning period to take an extra class and accommodate at least a few more students (there are 127 on the waiting list). 

“Yeah, just constantly coming,” Childress says in response to the gasping reply to that number. “The good Lord gave me the ability just to be able to bond and connect with people, and I think the bond that I create with my students helps drive them into that passion, and they see how they can be successful and make good money.”