JANESVILLE, Wis. -

Paul Ryan says he's forever grateful to the people of Janesville, the city his family has called home for five generations.

The Republican congressman received a raucous ovation Monday when he walked into the gym at the Janesville high school from which he graduated in 1988. More than 1,000 supporters gathered to give him a festive send-off before he heads to the Republican National Convention in Florida.

Ryan said his family came to America because of what the country stands for. He said Washington needs to learn that government works for the people, not the other way around.

"We're not just picking the next president for a few years. We are picking the pathway for America for a generation," Ryan said.

Many in attendance wore blue Romney-Ryan T-shirts. Several dozen wore foam cheeseheads that said Romney-Ryan on the side.

The gym had an atmosphere of a pep rally. High school cheerleaders lined up near the stage, and hand-painted signs stretched across the walls. Loudspeakers blasted songs such as U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," and Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True."

One of the attendees was Jeff FitzRandolph, a 64-year-old retired printer from Verona. He said he's excited about the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket because they have a plan to fix the country. 

Marty Critchley and his wife, Bette, were the first ones at the rally doors at 6 a.m. Monday. The couple said seeing Ryan rise to the national stage brings pride to their city.

"He goes to the same church we do, and he's just an incredible person. Really nice," Marty Critchley said.

"It's so amazing," said Arlene Redell, who drove from Lake Geneva to attend the rally. "I just had to come today. I had to come and see him on his way to glory. We need somebody to save this country, and the time is now, and he's the man."

Students in attendance said the front row seat to history showed them that their own dreams could span beyond city limits.

"I think it's actually a really good experience, because it's not just sitting in a classroom learning about politics," said Janesville Craig freshman Sophie Larson. "It's actually being here and hearing what someone has to say."

After his speech, Ryan shook hands and signed autographs. 

Ryan took time after the rally to speak with WISC-TV. He talked about why he changed his mind about running on the ticket for the nation's highest office.

"Back last August, when we looked at whether we should run for president or not, I didn't like the idea of a year and a half long campaign. And I thought Mitt Romney was offering good leadership," Ryan said. "When Mitt Romney asked me to join the ticket, he basically said, 'You share my values, and you have the kind of experience that complements my experience to fix this country's problems.' I've been a reformer in Congress a long time, you know my record, so when he said that to me I said, 'Yeah, let's get this done.'"

Meanwhile, a crowd of about 40 protesters gathered outside Janesville's Craig High School, voicing concerns about Ryan's policies.

Protesters held signs such as "Rep. Ryan: Not on my Side," and chanted, "One percent Ryan, one percent Ryan."

"Ryan's policy is the yo-yo plan -- you're on your own," said Janesville resident Linda Churchill.

Churchill and other critics Ryan said his plans for Medicare and Social Security hurt the middle class

"Romney and Ryan, they're not working for me and you. They don't care about working class Americans. They don't get it," Churchill said.

"Paul Ryan is not for you. He's for the Koch brothers. Mitt Romney is for the Koch brothers. We think it's ridiculous we have to be out her protesting (for) women's rights and Medicare, too," said Gina Hackett, a recent graduate of Craig High School.

Her classmate, Alivia Richter, agreed.

"Not everyone from Janesville, from Craig High School or Janesville in general, is excited about Paul Ryan being the VP," Richter said.