A group of three female inmates stand and smile as they hold certificates.July 16, 2020

WALTON COUNTY, Fla— The first female class to participate in the welding program at the Walton County Jail has graduated.

The three women, Shauna Gilbert, Jessica Williams, and Michelle Grindstaff, were awarded their certificates in a ceremony Wednesday outside the confines on the facility where they were first passed the torch.

The program, a partnership with Northwest Florida State College, has seen nine graduating classes from the six-week course. Before now, graduating inmates consisted of only men.

“The opportunities in this field are endless,” said Sheriff Michael Adkinson. “Once released, there is no limit to what you ladies can accomplish.”

All three have overcome tremendous obstacles to complete the course.A woman with a long braid welds with a helmet.

Williams, whose mother passed away while she was incarcerated, said learning to weld taught her how to push through hard times and persevere.

“All of us became friends and encouraged and helped each other,” said Williams.

“We challenged one another,” said Grindstaff, who plans to use her welding skillset once she is released. “If one of us was stronger at a certain method, we would try to give each other tips to help each other along.”

“We were a lot like family out here,” said Gilbert. “This is all we had. We got to a point where we looked forward to it even though it was challenging.”

The group also earned the title of Certified Welders after passing the American Welding Society test.

Upon their release, Northwest Florida State College Director of Professional and Workforce Training has offered the graduates an opportunity to apply their certificate towards 400 contact hours required for the flux core welding course if they choose to attend the college in Niceville.

“We’ve offered the skill,” said Adkinson. “But, they’ve earned it. It’s their job to use it.”