"I love you, Auntie," rang the answer from the audience.
The exchange was typical of the interaction between family and friends at the ceremony for the 14 graduates of the 21st course held by Opportunity Junction, a non-profit organization that helps low-income people gain computer and office skill competence and confidence.
As the graduates spoke, the audience often echoed the speaker or added comments of their own. It felt like a lively church service, with the congregation joining the preacher. When guest speaker Keith Archuleta talked about working the fields for $1 day, a woman said, "Oh, I have had those jobs."
Archuleta, executive director of the East County Business-Education Alliance, spoke of the need for people to receive assistance. He said that while we like to speak about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, people need help. He underlined it as opportunity.
When instructor Nathan Clark introduced her, Tuatagaloa-Levi said it was the best pronunciation she has heard of her father's warrior name. She has worked all over the world and had to brush up on her skills. At her request her family gave a rollicking "Choo-choo, hoo!" that she described as something Samoans do in celebration of a happy event.
The words and sentiment each graduate spoke were familiar, but the emotion, the outpouring of thanks to their families and to Clark and to Natalie Georgia, the other instructor, were genuine and fresh.
"When I walked through those doors, I came from a dark place," said Ron Lockhart, speaking in a soft, powerful voice. His younger son had died. Now, thanks to his hard work and determination and encouragement and expertise from his teachers, he is graduating and looking forward to going to work.
The graduates sat in front, clad in dark blue gowns and hats. Cyndie Bliss sat on the edge of her chair, one shoe off, as she dabbed at her eyes, the corners of her mouth turned down. When it was her turn to speak, her voice ran along the precipice of tears but she made it to the other side of her talk.
Jamie Baran said it was "awesome." Carmeleta Hill thanked her family for their patience. "Sometimes I came home and my brain was full of Access," she said.
Mildred Ervin said, "After 27 years in the job market they are helping me compete with young college graduates." Sarqueta Branch thanked God for a wonderful husband, and thanked her babysitter for "taking care of my baby." Yolanda Frazier used the word "beautiful" several times and said, "Thank God, it's over."
Roxana Dominguez thanked her family. Doug McNeill said, "I'm a man of few words, and you've probably had enough words already, but I'll give you two: patience and understanding." He said that the staff had those and helped the graduates get them.
Graduates Evelyn Adanandus, Alicia Charry, Yolanda Frazier, Shane Mills and Carol Small also gave thanks to all who had supported them.
Executive Director Alissa Friedman said the program has been in effect for six years, that 83 percent of the graduates are earning more than $15 an hour and more than 80 percent are still employed. She pointed out that the program is hard and said that four of the 14 had attended every single hour.
An opportunity to train in computer and office skills is free at the junction of Delta Fair and San Jose Drive, where Opportunity Junction provides computer training and allied skills to help people get jobs. It was formerly known as OPTIC, but the vision hasn't changed.
Opportunity Junction also holds drop-in computer classes nightly. And it helps graduates find jobs, has an internship program and runs a data-entry program staffed by graduates that serves businesses.
A long list of businesses and community organizations support it, but Opportunity Junction always could use more contributions and volunteers.
Recruitment will continue at their facility at 3102 Delta Fair Blvd. through Dec. 21 for the next series of eight-week classes that begin Jan. 8. For more information, call 776-1133 or go to www.opportunityjunction.org.