Gabrielle Olea and her son, Aiden, help themselves to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner thanks to Rep. Scott Peters. Photo by Chris Stone

Preschooler Aiden Ortega squealed in his mother’s arms as he spotted the donuts.

The treats were in addition to three kinds of pies and fruit. And that was just the dessert table.

Aiden and his mother, Gabrielle Olea, and about 25 other San Diego Continuing Education students got a free Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, bean bakes and cranberry sauce Friday thanks to a donation by Rep. Scott Peters.

For the second year, the congressman asked how he could help students in the Gateway to College and Career program at the Educational Cultural Complex in Mountain View.

“We want a proper Thanksgiving dinner,” Rabbi Laurie Coskey, executive director of San Diego Continuing Education Foundation, said she told the congressman, who wasn’t present due to being at a local military base.

Coskey told the students that Cesar Chavez said, “Food is love.”

She said the feast — almost a week before Thanksgiving — was to reward students for their commitment to their education.

MaryAnne Pintar, Peters’ chief of staff, said the students were there because “they’ve had some struggle to get through school, and (Peters) thinks it is important for them to know that a member of Congress cares about their success. He would like to be able to show them that he cares, and this is a good way to do that.”

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Pintar said the congressman’s office has a strategy to build a workforce in San Diego that qualifies people for jobs that require a specific certification or college degree.

Often these days, San Diego companies hire applicants from other cities and states, she said. And the goal is to fill them with local residents.

Such jobs will make up about 45% of openings in a few years, Pintar said, adding: “These are the kinds of jobs that you need to afford (to live) in San Diego.”

Coskey said Gateway — funded by the U.S. Department of Labor — is a “persistence program to help (students) remove all of the barriers that are stopping them from figuring out how to be successful adults.”

Launched three years ago, the Gateway program focuses on 18- to 24-year-olds who have faced some trauma in their lives — be it legal problems, broken families, abuse, drug use or other disruptive situations.

When joining the program, the youths are neither employed nor in school.

About 20% of enrollees have been homeless and about 40% dropped out of high school due to life circumstances, according to program literature.

“They are essentially lost,” Coskey said. “What we help them do is identify their own dreams, figure out what their goals are, both personally and in terms of their education and their career, and put all the supports around them in order to help them fulfill their own dreams.”

Aid includes bus passes, access to health care, child care and, if necessary, food.

About 210 students are in the “intensive” program, which involves education for 75 careers. While some students take high school completion classes, others are enrolled in courses in welding, culinary arts, cybersecurity and coding among others.

“They learn how to persist and to create goals, so they will be at least middle-wage earners,” Coskey said.

Students take courses for 1 1/2 to two years and are followed up on for another year. They take part in a 40-hour college and career preparation course.

Students in the program also have their tuition paid through the California Promise program for their first two years in college in the San Diego Community College District, in addition to $500 per academic year for necessary school supplies.

About 84% of program participants enter college or get a job upon completion, according to the district.

“If you are an adult who did not finish high school, you don’t want to go back to high school to get that degree, but you want that degree,” Pintar said. “This gives these adult learners an opportunity to do that in a setting that is comfortable for them and with other adult learners like them.”

Students at the pre-Thanksgiving meal expressed their appreciation.

“This helps everyone in the community come together and get to know each other,” said a student who gave her first name, Krystyle. She wants to be a real estate agent.

She attends the high school completion program at ECC.

“It helps me a lot because it gives me a place to go to and helps me find resources,” she said.

With toddler in arms, Gabrielle Olea said of the staff: “I think they’re really nice and have helped me a lot. They make sure that I stay on track and … that I am getting where I need to be to be successful in my life.”

Olea wants to be a psychologist.