Student's persistence packs a punch

In a so-called man’s world, Glenda Watkins can roll with the punches—provided she’s not throwing a few of them herself.

As a former nationally ranked lightweight women’s boxer, Watkins knows a little about the irony of a hard-knock life, from both literal and figurative perspectives.

In her early 20s, she began flipping rooms and houses long before the practice gained mass appeal on HGTV and TLC. “I was sort of grandfathered into the construction field by my father and then-husband,” she said.

Watkins said she lacked the formal knowledge of contracting work in those formative years but prided herself on her willingness to learn from mistakes. She and her then-husband had amassed about 10 homes they were either renting out or selling on contract around the time they filed for divorce in the early ’90s.

Wanting to start anew, Watkins took her two daughters and moved closer to her mother in Cincinnati for assistance in raising them. She also wanted to reinvent herself by getting into better physical shape, so she joined a gym, she said. And purely by chance, she met a boxing scout who suggested she try out for the sport. “I was just messing around in the beginning,” Watkins said. “I’m a tomboy, so I’ve got some fight under my belt.”

Yet no one laughed when the protégé laced up the gloves and served a few jabs.

Watkins became more comfortable with the idea of a life in the boxing ring and the transformation her body would need to endure. “I figured win, lose or draw, you’re gonna get your money, so I was all right with it. I come from a big family, so I know how to duck,” she quipped.

Before long, Watkins secured a cheap bus ticket to Las Vegas where she trained at the renown training grounds for boxers, Prince Ranch. Following weeks of sunrise-to-sunset training, she earned $10,000 in her first match, and ultimately claimed $30,000 as her largest purse. While on the boxing circuit, she appeared on HBO and Showtime during some of her bouts.

In time, Watkins said she missed spending quality time with her daughters, who were still with her mother, and was simultaneously regretting some poor financial decisions she made with her winnings. She chose to leave the boxing profession following a near six-year career, where, upon retirement, she ranked 10th in the country in her weight class.

“For me, I had to lose everything to appreciate what was in front of me,” Watkins shared. “I was one of those people who took things for granted.”

Watkins relocated to Fort Wayne in 1999 after her uncle helped her land a job as a furnace operator at a foundry in New Haven, Ind. She was eventually laid off from that position. Then, she accepted employment as a furnace operator in Auburn, Ind. That opportunity led to the same outcome. Next, she attempted work as a Fort Wayne-based truck driver. Within several months, she was looking at strike three.

By 2009, Watkins said she “refused to keep getting laid off,” so she enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast with the intent to better align her career satisfaction and financial independence by embracing her first love—the male-dominant field of construction, but with the desire to focus on the management side.

“Being a woman, I have to be on top of things,” she said. “You can’t go into a job half-stepping. Others will put roadblocks in your path to see if you know what you’re doing. And in the end, experience speaks for itself.”

One of Watkins’ strongest supporters is Construction Technology Chair and instructor Ryan Voorhees, who has mentored her in three skilled-trade classes to date. “I believe Glenda will make an excellent construction manager. Her knowledge of the trades, coupled with her determined, persistent personality will serve her well in the industry,” he said.

Like the disciplined prizefighter she is, Watkins has her sights on her next challenge: earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in construction management, and remaining open to the option of teaching skilled trades.

Watkins couldn’t resist delivering a final, good-natured “punch” line regarding her educational goals: “Like I tell my grown daughters, if I never get to use my master’s degree, at least list the accomplishment in my obituary.”

Safety Village: A Brief History

There are certainly times when enough is enough. And this attitude was an appropriate response from the citizens of Fort Wayne, when a house fire claimed the lives of three children on East Taber Street in 1979. The local Parent–Teacher Association exercised its community influence and partnered with the Fort Wayne Fire Department to prevent similar tragedies. Together, they launched a successful smoke detector campaign as the first line of defense against residential fires.

However, both parties knew that the long-term goal of saving lives would be enhanced with the construction of a Survive Alive House, where children could learn first-hand about fire-safety education and practice home-escape drills. For approximately 20 years, a modest Safety Village existed at Lafayette and Wallace streets. 

Through the efforts of a fundraising committee led by the PTA, City of Fort Wayne, and the Fort Wayne Fire and Police departments—combined with donated labor and building materials from community partners—a picturesque village made its debut at 1270 South Phoenix Parkway in 1991. The miniature town rests on a 3.7-acre complex on the city’s southeast side, directly behind the Public Safety Academy: Ivy Tech South Campus. It consists of 30 small buildings and a downtown area incorporating 16 structures. It remains the largest public-education site of its kind in the country. A classroom facility on the premises combines both police- and fire-safety education programs.

With the current Safety Village and Survive Alive House location surpassing the 20-year mark itself, volunteer assistance and tax-deductible donations for improvements are welcomed since the property is not maintained through public funding. No contribution of time or money is too small.

Information Source: Fort Wayne Fire Department

Contact Captain Dave Meadows with the Fort Wayne Fire Department’s Safety Education Division to pledge support as a donor, corporate sponsor or volunteer.

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Community restoration project takes students to new ‘heights’

When Construction Technology Chair and instructor Ryan Voorhees takes his students to new heights, it’s not just a figure of speech. He leads them on a journey that usually involves one or more stories off the ground.

Voorhees teaches a number of skilled-trades classes at Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast, where he said he enjoys arranging field practice for his apprentices. “I like to target two community projects per class, per semester,” he said. “We spend time in the Construction Technology Lab, perfecting the skills before we bring them out into the real world.”

Last spring, the college approached Captain Dave Meadows with the Fort Wayne Fire Department’s Safety Education Division to see what kind of project-based learning activities may be possible for Ivy Tech–Northeast students. He requested restoration assistance at the Safety Village. Many of its aging structures are suffering from natural deterioration, particularly water damage.

In response, two sections of Voorhees’ Roof Construction class and one section of his Exterior Finish class honored the captain’s request last fall, as they scaled one of the village’s downtown miniature skyscrapers to modify its flat roof by giving it a pitch, or slope, to promote the drainage of rainwater better.

Like most of the buildings in the village, the one cosponsored by Ivy Tech–Northeast, Nowak Supply and St. Joseph Hospital was constructed with a flat roof, which causes rainwater to pool. At present, rainwater has seeped into the skyscraper, causing mold and mildew contamination.

Meadows said he hopes to address the mold and mildew later in the spring once the interior has an opportunity to dry out now that Voorhees and his students have stopped the leaks. From there, the electrical features are expected to be upgraded, and visitors will once again be permitted to enter the building.

“We are excited about Ivy Tech’s involvement because it’s been greatly needed,” Meadows said. “We need as many community partners as possible, particularly in light of so many budget cuts. The city doesn’t have the funding to maintain these types of services on its own. The more involvement we are able to secure, the more it validates the purpose of the park’s educational goal, which is to serve as a community resource.”