Editor’s note: The last two days have been a whirlwind for PG&E Apprentice Electrician Erick Varela. What started as an invite to sit on a panel at the White House to discuss long-term unemployment turned into the honor of standing at the podium with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and introducing the president.
When Varela approached the podium in the East Room, 15 video cameras were there to record every word he said. Off to his right, about 20 still photographers were capturing images. On top of that, more than 300 people – elected officials, representatives from business and media members — were in the room. (Click here to see a video of the event.)
Varela, who is based in Eureka, shared his impressions of the day with Currents’ Tony Khing.
By Erick Varela
Now that it’s done, I can’t believe it happened. I was actually introducing the President of the United States. It’s kind of a rush, something I’ll never get to do again in my life and something a lot of people will never get to do. It’s a huge honor. It was almost overwhelming.
I didn’t know I was going to introduce President Obama until I came to Washington. My initial reaction was shock. I said to myself, “Only in this country can you go from being homeless to introducing the president of the United States.” It took me back.
When I told my wife (Katey), there was complete silence. She said, “Really? You get to introduce the President in front of those people?” She just said to make me proud and make sure you don’t do anything to embarrass yourself.
I wasn’t able to sleep much last night. Probably about four hours. I got to the room and stared at the TV. It hit me when I was watching something that I was going to be on a stage with these people. You go from working alone in a substation to being thrust into the spotlight, it’s kind of scary.
I met President Obama backstage before I spoke. He came out from a back room, walked up to me and said, “Hey, how’s it going, Erick?” At first, I didn’t think he was talking to me. I thought he was talking to someone else. He stuck out his hand and I told him I was kind of nervous. He said not to worry about it. We talked about a few things, including the Super Bowl. He made me feel real comfortable.
He said he wanted to push this long-term unemployment initiative because of people like me. I told him it’s not people like me. It’s companies like PG&E who make these stories. I told him we want to push this initiative and get companies to sign on to this training. The companies will make the difference in giving people like me the opportunity.
I’m just proud that maybe this program will help someone who’s been in my position, too. I’ve made it this far, but there are people still struggling who may need the same kind of opportunity.
He also said my story was inspiring. I said the story is more of the opportunity that was given to me by my company.
When I put that shirt on that says “PG&E,” it’s just like putting on my uniform that said “U.S. Army.” It’s a way of life for me. I care about this company. I care about the people we serve. I think every time someone turns on a light switch that I have a role in that. The people we work with are like brothers and sisters. It’s almost like it’s another military family. That makes you proud.
It’s been a roller-coaster day. You go from being extremely nervous to being worried that you’re going to do something wrong. Then all of a sudden, you find yourself in front of the cameras. You’ve got that PG&E lapel pin on and you don’t want to embarrass yourself or the company. And you’ve got the leader of the free world standing next to you.
But I do have one problem. My daughter thinks I’m going to meet Dora the Explorer next. My wife has to tell her that’s not how it works.