With help from the popular band Metallica, 16 area residents who are either unemployed or underemployed were able to graduate from a metal-working/machinist training program at Polk State Clear Springs Advanced Technology Center on Dec. 9.

Fans of the band have donated millions of dollars to the Metallica All Within My Hands Foundation since the non-profit was formed in 2017.

This year, Polk State College was one of 15 schools across the nation to receive a $100,000 grant from All Within My Hands supporters, in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges. The Metallica Scholars Initiative provided direct support to Polk State’s CNC Machining Program, including full scholarships to complete the eight-week training, as well as funds for students to take exams for six National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certifications that will qualify them for in-demand, high-wage careers.

In addition to learning new job skills, the graduates also helped build a bolt for the International Space Station.

Haines City resident Diane McLeod is one of two women who completed the training. McLeod worked for Disney as a maintenance specialist for 42 years before she was furloughed due to the pandemic, along with thousands of other Disney employees in April.

“I appreciate the fact that (Metallica supporters) are giving back to the community,” McLeod said. “I appreciate the people who extend a hand. I don't need a hand out, I just needed a hand up.”

McLeod said she is hoping her additional training will help her get re-hired at Disney. The 57-year-old woman said it was her first time back at school since she graduated high school in 1981. McLeod said re-learning some math was difficult, but that the class inspired her to think about taking additional classes at Polk State.

Auburndale resident Chris Needham was one of two students given an opportunity to speak during the graduation ceremony. He broke down in tears reflecting on his challenges in 2020, saying he had no means to take care of his daughter.

“I would gladly tell other people to come here if you feel like you don't have any other options — or if you don't know what you want to do with your life,” Needham said. “This is something you can do with your life.”

Needham said he had considered giving up at one point, but that Polk State staff kept him going.

“I needed this to build myself and, because y'all pushed me, I am able to," he said. "I appreciate every single one of you, from the bottom of my heart.”

Lakeland resident Chassidy Houchin was the other student invited to speak to her classmates at graduation. Houchin finished her training a couple of months ago, but graduated with the second class. She shared that she has already secured a better job opportunity with her new skills.

Houchin, who was celebrating her 34th birthday that day, attended training full time and worked nights at a pallet company. The Metallica grant helped inspire her to continue her studies and to try and earn her associates degree in science from Polk State College.

Polk State College President Dr. Angela Falconetti congratulated the 16 graduates, thanked her staff for a job well done and thanked Metallica supporters worldwide. The students all got a black Metallica-inspired t-shirt to wear to graduation.

“I think it's kind of cool,” Falconetti said. “Metallica Scholars all dressed in black – it's cool what the band did.”

Those interested in donating to this ongoing cause can learn more at www.allwithinmyhands.org/

Polk State continues to enroll Metallica Scholars for sessions beginning Jan. 11, March 8 and May 17. Individuals who are interested in the program should contact Coordinator Jamie Rowan at jrowan@polk.edu or 863.837.5954.