All aboard: Students kick-start careers on Ironwood

Multnomah County

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Fleet Week officially kicked off on Wednesday afternoon — bringing Navy and Coast Guard ships to the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

One of the vessels docked along the Willamette River is the Ironwood ship, which is part of the Tongue Point Job Corps Center. It’s the ship where students from across America come to learn critical skills to become a mariner. 

Capt. Len Tumbarello is the director of seamanship aboard the Ironwood. (KOIN)

Capt. Len Tumbarello served in the Coast Guard for nearly three decades, but he’s spent the last six years on the Ironwood. He serves as the director of seamanship.

“We make miracles happen to be honest with you,” Capt. Tumbarello said.

Aboard the ship, Capt. Tumbarello takes 18-24-year-old men and women from inner cities and underserved areas across the U.S. and turns them into Coast Guard credentialed merchant mariners for free.

“These students spend two years of their lives learning the craft of seamanship,” he said.

Capt. Tumbarello added that the students also learn other trades, including plastering and painting.

“It’s all on taxpayer money, but I’m going to tell you — as a taxpayer in the United States — this is money well spent,” Capt. Tumbarello told KOIN 6 News.

Once they graduate, the students gain employment in the maritime industry.

Blaine Viyavong, 18, is one of the dozens of seamanship students on board. He said this opens the door to so many opportunities he and others wouldn’t have otherwise.

“It’s so breathtaking,” Blaine said. “I don’t know where to begin. I just want to take it bit by bit. Right now, I’m living in the moment.”

Fellow student Jabria Roberts, 23, said she loves the seamanship program — and she’s following in her brothers’ footsteps.

“I did this because I didn’t want to keep depending on my mom,” she said. “She’s done so much for me, so taking this big step is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Jabria added that she’s excited to “see the world and learn new things.”

The Ironwood is stationed in Astoria — but before that, it used to be a Coast Guard buoy tender. It was decommissioned in 2000 and then two years later it was bought by a private owner, who gifted it to the Tongue Point Job Corps.

While the ship may be 77 years old, it certainly doesn’t look like it — thanks to the students’ hard work to keep it clean.

This scholarship helps these students’ dreams sail by taking them out of their comfort zones and teaching them life skills while making lifelong friends.

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