Apprentices trade Sacramento street life for arena construction jobs

Eric Martinez, 24, stands next to a tractor last week at the Sacramento Job Corps Center, where he received training toward a construction job on the new arena project.
Eric Martinez, 24, stands next to a tractor last week at the Sacramento Job Corps Center, where he received training toward a construction job on the new arena project.

He pulled into an East Sacramento deli, his sister and infant nephew in tow, to tuck into a pizza and talk awhile. That it was such a normal way to spend a Monday evening was precisely why it was so special.

A stop for pizza, a new-to-him Hyundai in the parking lot bought with his own cash, a newlywed wife and a roof overhead up the road in Folsom. All signs of a new life.

Home for Eric Martinez, once upon a time, was the river; later it was in foster care, then a men’s home. Gangs were his family. Drugs were both a crutch and his trade.

“I wasn’t the person everyone looked up to,” Martinez said. “I was the person everyone looked down to.”

Normal is a new normal for Martinez, one he’s still trying on for size, fortunate for the chance.

Martinez, 24, is one of 70 “priority apprentices” being plucked from low-income Sacramento-area neighborhoods to help build downtown Sacramento’s new arena. “Pushing dirt,” Martinez says, plying a new trade aboard graders and bulldozers he learned to drive as a product of Sacramento Job Corps’ equipment pre-apprenticeship program, a pipeline to the arena project.

Taught by local construction workers, young men and women on the margins learn how to operate heavy equipment at Job Corps’ sprawling Meadowview center before they move to “The Ranch,” Operating Engineers Local 3’s Rancho Murieta training grounds. There, they receive seven weeks’ more paid instruction with the opportunity to apprentice with the union and work with local construction firms.

Through the pre-apprenticeship program, Martinez impressed his instructors with his tenacity, work ethic and willingness to learn.

“He was easy to teach and eager to learn,” said Jaime Espinosa, Martinez’s instructor at Job Corps. “Eric had to put the work in to get what he could out of the program. Here, you have to work for it and he did. … It’s an absolute win for those who want to get it done. He made the decision. He’s 24 years old and he’s set up – if he continues to do what he’s supposed to do.”

Martinez then latched onto a job with Granite Construction Co., in South Lake Tahoe, early last year as part of his training before landing the arena job in October. He still remembers that first Granite paycheck, how he cried when he saw it for the first time. He thought about his mother’s words in tougher days, her encouragement and challenge to him.

“I’d come home high, tore up, and she’d say, ‘I don’t care how you look right now. You’re going to be something,’” Martinez said.

The Sacramento Kings-led initiative launched last spring. The priority apprentice program brought together business and faith-based groups, job training agencies and the building trades, as well as Turner Construction, the company hired to build the arena, to recruit and train workers from “high-need backgrounds” across Sacramento County for the $477 million project.

“We’re incredibly proud of this program. We wanted this to be catalytic for the entire region and for individual people,” said Kunal Merchant, a Kings vice president.

Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, or SETA, was also key, providing wage subsidies via the Workforce Investment Act to bring apprentices aboard, Merchant said. So far, 12 of the 70 sought overall, including Martinez, are on the job, Merchant said. He expects many more to be hired as the project picks up steam in the summer.

The program targeted city residents who met two or more of the following criteria: They had to qualify as low-income, receive food stamps or public assistance; were formerly in foster care, homeless, a military veteran or ex-offender. It also targeted residents in 11 ZIP codes, from North Highlands to downtown Sacramento, Arden Arcade to Valley Hi.

About 30 percent of residents in those ZIP codes lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, double the regionwide poverty rate, according to the latest census figures. The unemployment rate there during that period was 18 percent, compared with about 13 percent regionwide.

Those who qualified for the arena project went through apprenticeships offered by training programs such as the Sacramento Job Corps or others such as American River College’s Project STRIPE.

Sacramento Job Corps accepts those who met each of the criteria, except those with felony offenses or who are on formal probation, said Brian Broadway, Job Corps’ business community liaison. About 90 percent complete the preapprenticeship on average, Broadway said, while 10 percent wash out, mostly for failed drug tests, unexcused absences and bad behavior.

Martinez had worked a few months at the same East Sacramento deli where he sat with his sister and cut hair for some side cash, but otherwise was drifting, fighting himself and fighting to stay out of the street life.

“He was struggling,” sister Crystal Arias said while Martinez went to place his pizza order at Selland’s Market-Cafe. “He had nobody to look up to. The whole family was worried about him. He used to not call, he used to not visit. I think he used to be embarrassed – that’s why he would stay away.”

Troubles had hounded him since he was a child in San Jose, living in a homeless tent city with his methamphetamine-addicted mother on the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Martinez’s mother, Raisa De Leon, talked candidly last week about the path they walked.

“He came from a gang-affiliated family. I was introduced to meth, gangs – Norteños. Right behind the (NHL’s San Jose) Sharks’ arena, there’s a river. We called it ‘El Rio.’ We lived there for two years in that condition,” she said. They slept in a camping tent or squatted in an abandoned house when the weather turned cold.

“He’s come a long way,” De Leon said Thursday, stretching out “long” for emphasis.

Eight years clean after losing custody of her son to foster care, doing jail time and kicking meth, she has come a long way, too. Today, De Leon, 42, ministers on the streets of Stockton, steering young people away from the drugs and gangs that derailed her and her son.

“We need to tell our story,” De Leon said in the shadow of the arena construction site in downtown Sacramento. “If we don’t share it, we’re holding it back from the people who need to hear it.”

By the time Martinez was 21, De Leon knew what was at stake. Living in Stockton, Martinez had slipped deeper into drugs and feared he was becoming addicted.

The moment of truth finally came after a botched drug deal. Martinez escaped unharmed, but his friend was stabbed.

“It opened my eyes,” Martinez says now. He called his mother.

De Leon drove Martinez home that same night. It was 2011. She knew a friend who ran a transitional home in Sacramento and lodged him there.

At the home, Anchored in His Grace, the fog began to lift. He was getting sober, finding faith, and, unexpectedly, love.

“He was the youngest I’ve ever seen at the house,” said Cecilia Martinez, 24, and now Eric’s wife. “We just started talking and making music together,” singing, crafting rhymes and lyrics, she said. “At the time, I was going through a lot, turning my life to God. God spoke to me and told me Eric was my husband.”

Martinez won the love of his future wife, but he also had to win the trust of Cecilia’s father, Bradley Kirtz, a state correctional officer originally skeptical of him and wary of his past.

“Like any other father, I said, ‘Don’t rush into this,’ ” Kirtz said. “He said he had to wake up and stand up on his own two feet. He said he wanted to show he was worthy of my daughter’s hand.”

Kirtz has since become a mentor and more, renting out a home he owns in Folsom to the young couple and being an example to Eric Martinez.

“You get up in the morning and provide for your family. He saw how I was able to do that, and he just took to it,” Kirtz said.

The couple’s bond soon grew, deepened by their shared faith, and by the end of 2012, Cecilia and Eric Martinez were engaged. It was about the same time he entered the Job Corps.

“He was going to Job Corps to get his GED, a driver’s license and his career,” Cecilia said. Eric Martinez had but a fifth-grade education and a lot of work ahead, academically and within, to trust his teachers and himself.

“From the upbringing I came from, I didn’t trust nobody,” Martinez said. But he ultimately excelled by trusting both, making his way onto the priority apprenticeship list and earning honors last year as the Job Corps center’s most improved student.

“He’s a focused young man. He knew what he wanted to do. He was a role model on campus,” Broadway said. “He said he didn’t want a handout, he wanted an opportunity, and that fell in place with the priority apprenticeship.”

At the deli in East Sacramento, Arias now sees a different brother than the one she remembered.

“Now that I see him, he inspires me,” Arias said. “He used to tell me that he looked up to me. Now it’s turned around.”

Martinez also thinks about the journey he’s taken – homelessness, the drugs, the gangs – and where he would be if he hadn’t had another chance. He has a pretty good idea.

“I found a way from ‘No way.’ I’m able to help my family. … For me, the arena saved my life,” he said. “And, 10, 15 years from now, I can go back there and say, ‘I did that.’ ”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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