Denise DeMercado still remembers how terrible she felt in 2009 when she turned away a young man looking for a job at Superior Auto, a business she runs with her husband Mark.
Chris Jackson, she recalled, had no training as a mechanic. She told him without that training she could not hire him.
“I saw the disappointment in his eyes when he walked away,” Ms. DeMercado said. “I knew I had to assist him. I told my husband he had to start teaching classes.”
A year later, the couple started an apprenticeship program with six students, Mr. Jackson being one of them, in the DeMercado’s garage. Over the years, the program, which is internationally accredited, grew. Then, in 2016, the couple was forced to close the program, due in part to logistics issues.
But on Thursday, April 19, the DeMercado’s presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for a new facility they hope will eventually handle as many as 20 apprentices at once. About 100 people attended the event along with some of the island’s top dignitaries, including Assembly Speaker McKeeva Bush, Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly and other legislative ministers.
A short distance from the Superior Auto garage, the 2,250-square-foot two-story building will house three service bays on the ground floor and classrooms on the second floor. Mr. DeMercado said he hoped to have the new facility ready to accept a new class of students within six months.
“This is something that I’d always dreamt of,” Ms. Demercado said. “This will provide opportunities for many talented young Caymanian people.”
Derren “Mikey” Burlington is one of the beneficiaries who addressed the crowd. He was in the second group of students in the program and now works as a mechanic on large machinery for CUC.
“I can’t imagine where I’d be without it,” Mr. Burlington said of the program. “I’m actually kind of scared to think about it. It still plays a part in my daily life at work and out of work.”
Mr. Burlington said he discovered his love of cars when he came to Superior Auto as part of a work experience program while a student at Triple C School. He made the point that he did not have to pay for the apprenticeship. It was funded through government and private contributions to the program.
“I didn’t spend a cent,” he said, looking at the DeMercados. “And you guys made it all possible.”
Ms. DeMercado said students have never had to pay for the $12,000 to $15,000 cost of the 14-month program. She hopes to keep it that way, but currently does not have a commitment from government for funding that it has provided in the past. She said Minister O’Connor-Connolly has requested information on the costs.
During the event, Ms. O’Connor-Connolly addressed the crowd and expressed support for the program.
“This is a textbook example of how we nationbuild,” she said, adding that it was important to produce Cayman trained mechanics who understood the needs of island motorists.
She also said this is the type of program that could be sustained over the years.
“When you have a good idea, it transcends political parties and it transcends changes in leadership,” she said.
Ms. DeMercado said she sees the construction of the school as a new beginning.
“We’re starting on another leg of the journey,” she said, where she hopes to provide “opportunity, indeed hope, purpose and fulfillment for many more Caymanian young people.”
The apprenticeship program is currently taking applications. Those interested can call Superior Auto at 949-9570.