Two years ago, Elaine Smith was a student worker at Chattanooga State when she finally visited the doctor after feeling sick for a while.
"I went to the emergency room, and real bluntly the doctor said, 'Miss Smith, you have cancer,'" the 59-year-old said Wednesday. She had a malignant mixed Mullerian tumor -- an aggressive and often fatal cancer -- and went into surgery a week later.
She received chemotherapy and had to quit her job while she focused on surviving. Finally, this past October, the doctors said she was healthy enough to return to work.
"But where?" she said.
She'd worked as a secretary, 911 operator and word processor, but she wanted to do something more. So she applied and was accepted to The Enterprise Center's Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program.
On Wednesday, she graduated from the seven-week course with a slew of certificates, some recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
This 25-member class is the second group to finish the program, which is funded by a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The goal of the grant is to help 75 people who are either unemployed or underemployed find jobs. While the course covers topics such as lead paint, mold remediation, asbestos and hazardous waste, most graduates find work in manufacturing, construction or transportation, coordinator Donna Van Natten said.
"A lot of those industries are going green," she said. "So to get on a construction site now, you have to have OSHA 10. These are some basic certificates to get your foot in the door that other applicants may not have."
Sixteen of Wednesday's graduates are heading straight into Chattanooga State's Commercial Driver's License program, part of a partnership that was planned from the beginning, Van Natten said.
"It's a job grant," Van Natten said. "Helping people find jobs and filling in a gap."
Graduate Rick Blair already works three 13-hour shifts a week at U.S. Xpress as a fleet manager, but enrolled in The Enterprise Center's free training in order to make himself more marketable, he said.
"So they will look at all these certificates and say, 'We need to give this man another position,'" he said. "Because if they don't, someone else will."
Most of the $300,000 grant is being used directly for the training courses, Van Natten said, and a small percentage is going to administrative costs and to track former students through 2014.
The EPA gave the grant in 2011, and the program kicked off in July 2012. Of the 18 students who graduated from the first course, 13 now are employed in full-time jobs -- that's about 72 percent.
The goal is to have 85 percent of students land a full-time job that pays between $10 and $12 an hour, Van Natten said.
Smith is one of the nine students who aren't continuing with the six-week CDL program. After taking an 80-hour introduction to heavy equipment during The Enterprise Center's training, she hopes to be a forklift operator.
"Today is the start of a new life for me," she said. "I know I can speak, I know I can type. But being a forklift operator, that's out of my comfort zone. It was something I would have feared, but now I don't."