WINCHESTER — "Today's a good day."
Those words from Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum kicked off Wednesday afternoon's long-awaited grand opening of the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center, a career training facility that will certify students to work in a variety of health care, technology and skilled labor jobs.
The center opened to students in August but wasn't formally feted until Wednesday's 90-minute celebration, which began with a small parade led by the Handley High School marching band that spanned the two-and-a-half blocks from Handley to the new career center.
"Students, this is for you," Van Heukelum said about the training facility that will be utilized by approximately 60% of Handley students. "I'm confident it's going to pay dividends in your lives, for the rest of your lives."
Van Heukelum was the first of 23 people who spoke at the ceremony that signaled the end of a five-year effort to transform the former John Kerr Elementary School at 536 Jefferson St. into a state-of-the-art facility for Career and Technical Education (CTE) students.
The work to create the innovation center came full circle Wednesday when Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, stepped up to the podium. That's because four years ago, on Oct. 9, 2017, then-governor McAuliffe came to Winchester to announce the career center would be named in honor of Emil and Grace Shihadeh, whose daughter, Karen Schaufeld, and son-in-law, Fred Schaufeld, made a $1 million donation to assist with the facility's construction, which cost about $17 million to complete.
"To come back here four years later for the grand opening, I cannot tell you how exciting this is," McAuliffe said. "And I want to recognize Grace, who this building was actually named after."
Grace Shihadeh is a retired nurse in her mid-80s who was fanned throughout Wednesday's ceremony by Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, to help keep her cool on an unseasonably warm October day. Shihadeh's husband, Emil Shihadeh, was a welder and welding instructor who died in 2014 at the age of 78.
"Mom, thank you for all the things you've done for us and your patience," Karen Schaufeld said before placing her hand on her heart and looking skyward. "And Dad, I hope you're looking down on us and smiling today."
"This is once again proof, beyond a doubt, that when good people work together, good things happen," said J. Hamilton Lambert, executive director and trustee of the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization that financially supported the center's creation.
Virginia's current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, said the center will make it possible for students to find good jobs after graduation.
"The number one thing companies tell us about why they come to Virginia is our talented workforce," Northam said. "If we do not continue to keep that pipeline open between our education system and our business community, businesses will literally find other places to move."
"We've needed something like this for a long time," added Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, noting that shortages of trained workers are crippling many businesses in Virginia and across the United States. "I'll give you an example. Walmart starts tractor-trailer drivers at $87,000 a year but can't find any. That's a problem and we need to do something about that."
McAuliffe said the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center is a shining example of how schools and businesses can work together to create and maintain a well-trained workforce.
"We should have this in every single region of the commonwealth," McAuliffe said about the center. "That's how we are going to be successful."
For more information about the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center, visit wps.k12.va.us.