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Courage leads to life-changing apprenticeship

I’ve gotten so much support in every direction. This union family, we look out for each other.

Cristina Redbear

Cristina Redbear, L-83 apprentice

When she indentured in 2018, Local 83 (Kansas City, Missouri) apprentice Cristina Redbear found more than a new career opportunity. She also discovered a new, supportive community in the Boilermakers.

Born and raised on the reservation in the Dakotas, she’s a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that extends from South Dakota up to North Dakota. The journey from there to her life today was a difficult and winding one.

In her early 20s, Redbear found herself a young, single mother with two daughters to raise and no place to call home. “Fortunately, I had a car at the time,” she says. It’s where she and her young daughters slept—there or, once in a while, on a friend’s couch. “It was a rough time.” 

She eventually got a job with her tribe working in human resources and applied for housing in Bismarck, North Dakota. That’s where she met her boyfriend who later became her husband. It’s also where she started thinking about a career change.

While she was grateful for the HR job, Redbear wanted something more. She had friends who were pipefitters, all non-union. And her boyfriend was in the Laborers' union, working at Bobcat. He’d attended welding school and encouraged her to give it a try. 

She was nervous about learning to weld. She’d tell her boyfriend, “I’m a woman. I don’t know anything about the trades.” But he’d come home from work and tell her about the processes of welding. Eventually, with her curiosity piqued, she enrolled in a welding training course in Bismarck while also juggling two jobs working in daycare and as a cashier. 

“I went through a 12-week program,” Redbear says.  “That’s where I heard about the Boilermakers. When I went to school, it all clicked. At first I was nervous, then became intrigued. And I felt much better about the decision to learn to weld.” 

She enjoyed the work and ended up applying to the Great Lakes Area Boilermaker Apprenticeship Program. To her delight, the union accepted her into the apprenticeship program. 

Her family had been thinking about moving off the reservation and this clinched it. She and her boyfriend got married then moved their family to the Kansas City area. They made the move without a place to live and started over from scratch.

“When we moved, we left everything behind,” Redbear says. “We only brought our clothes. We stayed in my sister’s basement, crammed in there for two or three months until we could rent our own house.” 

In 2020, her husband indentured into L-83, and now the pair travels to jobs together. Redbear’s cousin, who joined the family in Kansas City, helps with the couple’s four school-aged children. 

She says the biggest challenge she faced was making the decision to jump into the Boilermakers. In hindsight, the decision was a good one. 

“It’s been great in the Boilermakers,” she says. “I’ve gotten so much support in every direction. This union family, we look out for each other.”

Redbear has nothing but praise for the Boilermakers and her union brothers and sisters. “I usually meet someone I click with on my jobs.” She mentions she’ll never forget her first job working on expansion joints at the LaCygne Generating Station, where she met another woman from her local: Roni Jenkins. The two remain friends both on and off the job. 

She has advice for other women thinking of becoming a Boilermaker. “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. You’re capable of doing this for yourself. Just jump in.”