A passion for carpentry and woodworking led Rudy Morales to an unexpected career in construction, a path he never could have imagined taking due to a troubled past, and now he's proud to be working on one of the city's most noteworthy projects.
"I always dreamed to work in a construction site... but never thought in my life I would be here," said Morales.
The 36-year-old grew up in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. He says he dropped out of Curie High School after getting mixed with the wrong crowd. At 18, he was convicted of a crime and ended up spending time at the Cook County Jail.
"A difficult time being in the streets of Chicago," Morales said. "I made some wrong choices."
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
After 18 months behind bars, Morales' situation did not improve. He went back to the streets and got into more trouble. He landed back in jail a second time. He says that experience ultimately changed the course of his life.
"I realized, this is not the path I wanted to be in... the lifestyle I wanted to be in," said Morales. "I focused more on my education and getting my GED... an education for when I do come out."
That's how Morales came across carpentry work. He began training and eventually obtained a job building cabinets. Just as things were starting to look up, the pandemic hit and Morales was laid off.
But then, he heard of HIRE360. An organization that helps prepare and train people to obtain jobs in construction. He was able to join the Carpenter's Apprenticeship program.
"One of the missions of HIRE360 is giving opportunities to black and brown communities," said AnaMaria Montes de Oca-Rojas, Director of workforce development. "Our goal is to be able to help them land these fabulous jobs."
Morales said HIRE360 was able to provide the tools necessary to start his next career and helped him get into the construction site of his dreams. He's now one of hundreds selected to help build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
"Just coming through the gates... it was a life experience," Morales said. "It's amazing... something that our family, my kids are always going to look back and think that's my dad... he helped build this and I'm making history just being here."
Not only did Morales get to be a part of such a historic project, but he also had the opportunity to meet former President Barack Obama, while he visited the site in Chicago.
It was a moment Rudy will never forget, one that made his parents, wife and children very proud. And it was all thanks to someone giving him a second chance.
"If I can change, anyone can change also... especially with background I have," said Morales. "I've been giving it my all, 100 percent. It's something I really love... I have a lot of passion, pride... so do all the guys who work here. It's exciting to work with them side by side."
"I see Rudy really growing and going far," said Montes de Oca-Rojas. "This is not going to just stop here."