Welder Steve Bunyard Gives Others in Need an Opportunity to Blaze a New Future
Sparks of hope.
- Written byQuinn Roberts
- Photographed byJeff Berting
On a sunny September day in the parking lot of Rolling Hills Covenant Church, an 18-wheel trailer hummed with activity. Within these metal walls, despite the burning temperatures outside, a handful of students engaged in the art of welding.
Steve Bunyard, the founder and CEO of ReIGNITE Hope, first envisioned his nonprofit after talking to a woman running Fred Jordan Missions on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Working as a pastor at Rolling Hills Covenant Church at the time, he believed the best service he could offer the homeless population was helping them find jobs.
But how? Steve zeroed in on an idea. “Welding just kept coming into my head, but I’d never taught anyone how to weld,” he shares. “I didn’t even know if it could work.”
Steve learned how to weld as a young man, thanks to his love of race cars and hot rods. Up until his late 30s, he was the CEO and owner of Premier Performance, an automotive retailer and manufacturer in Orange County.
When Steve initially launched the operation in 2011, ReIGNITE Hope was given a room by Fred Jordan Missions to start the project. Once Steve bought the proper equipment to teach, five homeless people at the mission were chosen to participate. Little did Steve and all those involved know that this humble beginning was the start of something much greater.
As the nonprofit began to grow and improve, ReIGNITE Hope moved into a 6,000-square-foot facility in Gardena where it could increase the number of people being trained at one time. That improved space has helped his organization train nearly 1,000 people to date. Though the facility originally had 15 welding stations, it has been reduced temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the challenges of the last two years, ReIGNITE Hope graduated 51 students last fall and another 60 students in May. All of the students who attended the training passed their welding certification test, with many graduates finding well-paying union jobs in industries including aerospace, manufacturing and construction.
The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the trailer, which is giving students another way to learn outside the Gardena facility. The nonprofit is in the process of building another trailer—growth Steve sees as the future for ReIGNITE Hope. The trailers will make it possible to go to more underserved communities and help people who don’t normally have such opportunities.
Word about ReIGNITE’s program spread like wildfire throughout Southern California. San Bernardino and Riverside counties have shown interest in starting programs. ReIGNITE Hope classes just began in Orange County. Steve also speaks at jails and high schools about the program to generate interest.
“Steve is driven because of his faith and has this amazing, quiet spirit,” says Bill Duncan, chair of ReIGNITE Hope. “Once the students get used to Steve, they recognize he is here because he loves and wants to help them.”
A great example of ReIGNITE Hope’s impact is a former student named Rudy. He heard about ReIGNITE Hope while in prison. Once released, he signed up for the program and completed the 100 hours of training. From there he became certified and joined the union.
“We have a big picture of him in our classroom to give the students inspiration,” says Steve. “He sent us a picture of himself at the top of Banc of California Stadium in Downtown Los Angeles with his welding machine standing so many feet high up. He wanted us to see what his life turned into from what it was because of ReIGNITE Hope.”
Tuition remains free, as most students lack the financial resources to pay for this kind of education. That accessibility generates huge interest. Steve receives letters and applications from outside Southern California, including Hawaii and Texas. Because of the demand, ReIGNITE Hope takes its acceptance process seriously. Steve and other board members interview the applicants and decide who will be invited into the program.
“It is hard to go away for six to eight weeks,” Steve says of the participants. “We have people who commute from Riverside, the Antelope Valley and even San Diego every day. That is a big hike. When you see some of them catch three buses to get to class, that is pretty serious. We love to see that seriousness and dedication.”
When a few local leaders in the Dallas area heard about what ReIGNITE Hope was accomplishing, they set out to do the same thing in their region. They plan to follow the same model, building trailers to train those in need looking for a fresh start. It was important for Steve and other members on the board to ensure they had the same philosophies on life and faith before helping them start the process.
As ReIGNITE Hope continues to expand, it relies on its donors and grants from the state of California. Many of the donations come from Rolling Hills Covenant Church but also simply from word-of-mouth. The organization even received a donation from a person in Nebraska.
Steve still cannot get over the generosity of the community. Sometimes it comes when he least expects it. Just recently, a couple with no connection to Steve or any of the students donated $50,000 to ReIGNITE Hope.
Community members also generously donate their time. Some join Steve in teaching the students how to weld. Others within the church donate meals each day. Former students are sometimes employed as instructors, and some help find employment for new students after completion of the program. Students also learn practical skills such as budgeting and saving.
“We value and cherish our donors’ money, so we want to make sure that every dollar goes to a deserving person to be a part of the program,” says Steve. “We are investing in students who want a career in this.”
And the students recognize just how much the program and its volunteers will change the trajectory of their lives. “They are so calm and patient with us. They talk to us so patiently and tell us when we can do better with something. They have such a positive energy, and it really picks us up,” says student Joshua Price.
Joshua found out about ReIGNITE Hope on the internet and couldn’t believe that tuition was covered. At one point he was homeless and working odd jobs, including farmwork in Bakersfield for $5 a day. This opportunity has been a breath of fresh air.
“My mom’s cousin is a welder. He kept telling me to get into it,” says Joshua. “It is great. The thought of taking a pile of metal and being able to create something is pretty amazing.”
Veteran Alex Simpson heard about the nonprofit through his therapist, who thought it would be a great way to combat his post-traumatic stress disorder. “Making something out of nothing gives me a sense of pride. It’s something I can show my kids,” says Alex. “You can make something dirty [into something] pretty and shiny.”
This experience has taught Alex not just how to think outside the box but also to feel comfortable in his own skin. “I just needed a different outlet to show my skills. I have always been into lowrider cars and am a bike enthusiast, and I wanted to upgrade my skills,” he says. “Usually I have a hard time coming out of my shell, and I just observe. Now I feel comfortable, and I ask for different tips and tricks.”
While the students anticipate the opportunities they will receive from the program after they graduate, they also enjoy another great perk: building relationships with fellow classmates. Many have had similar life experiences and interests.
For Steve, seeing all of this happen is a dream come true. ReIGNITE Hope has touched so many lives and will continue to each day, month and year. That little mustard seed, as he calls it, has definitely sprouted.
“I pinch myself all the time,” he says. “I almost feel like a spectator in this. I never could have planned that it would be like this. I couldn’t have written this story even if I wanted to.”