SWINOMISH INDIAN TRIBAL COMMUNITY — For the past three weeks, six high school students have gone behind the scenes at the Swinomish Casino & Lodge — learning about everything from how to operate the resort’s reservation system to preparing for banquets and even changing sheets.

“I love housekeeping,” said 16-year-old La Conner High School student Tori Lockrem. “You’re in a room for one minute, and you have to get it all done.”

Through the Northwest Career and Technical Academy, the students are getting hands-on experience in the hospitality industry by spending three weeks interning with the resort.

“We wanted to give our youth the opportunity to have the skills they need to be successful in their transitions to the workforce,” said Christina Adams, senior benefits specialist and tribal liaison for the resort. “When they graduate, they’ll be ready to be employed.”

It is the second year the academy has partnered with the tribe to offer the three-week internship, Adams said. The La Conner School District and the Swinomish Education Department are also partners.

Both years, the class has been open to students in the academy’s advanced culinary program and counts as a hospitality credit for students, said culinary program instructor Lyle Hildahl.

“It works with industry directly one-to-one on a daily basis,” Hildahl said. “They get a chance to experience all these outlets in a real-life setting.”

The internship gives the students hands-on experience in a variety of areas, he said. Each day they do something different, whether it’s housekeeping, customer service or prepping food for one of the resort’s eateries.

“It’s breaking up the routine in an educational environment,” Hildahl said. “You’re not always in the classroom. They remember the experiences.”

Mount Vernon High School junior Andy Gonzalez said he wanted to participate in the program because he enjoyed the introductory-level culinary program. As he worked the customer service desk of the hotel area, he learned that he liked more than just the cooking aspect — possibly enough to pursue a hospitality career.

“It turned out to be something I wanted that I didn’t know I wanted,” he said. “This is something I really had a passion for. I like the action.”

In preparation for a banquet later in the week, Lockrem on Wednesday carefully measured out 7-ounce bags of noodles that would be used for the meal.

“No less, no higher,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to do something with food.”

She enjoyed the food preparation part of the program, but found that housekeeping was her favorite part.

“(The program) seemed like a better opportunity to do things I know and love,” she said.

Swinomish Casino & Lodge Executive Chef A.J. Boulanger said the experience was not only good for the students, but also his staff.

“For the whole team, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It brings a little youth to the kitchen.”

Next year, Boulanger said he hopes to have his daughter, a student in the Bellingham School District, attend.

The academy serves students in Skagit and Whatcom counties and is operated by school district superintendents from those counties, as well as Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan. The Mount Vernon School District is the managing partner.

At the end of the three weeks, the students participate in a job fair where they interview with each of the resort’s departments. Some will be offered jobs, Adams said.

Last year, she said, the resort hired seven former interns as employees.

“A lot of the graduates from last year are excelling,” Adams said.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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