Sun Shine: YouthWorks building skills, pride in young people

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It was typical fare for the summer. The room was air-conditioned and filled with teens lounging casually in chairs, talking, occasionally laughing, and finding that the best placement for snacks was squarely in the middle of the room for easy access.

The mix of the traditional metrics — race, age, gender — seemed to be expected from a metropolitan hangout once the school year had terminated.

Clockwise from top left, Caitlyn Depres, Louisa Odonkor, Quinten Petrallo and Ayeisa Tejada Pena, city of Worcester YouthWorks employees at Out to Lunch.

Courtesy WCAC

Clockwise from top left, Caitlyn Depres, Louisa Odonkor, Quinten Petrallo and Ayeisa Tejada Pena, city of Worcester YouthWorks employees at Out to Lunch.

However, considering the presence of a teacher, notebooks and assigned seats, not to mention a rational, coordinated discussion, it was clear this gathering of youths — as they like to be called — was not merely attempting to enjoy their summer vacation, but maximize it.

Being located on the fourth floor of the Worcester Public Library may have also been a giveaway.

With the goal of providing young people with more opportunity in places such as Worcester, Commonwealth Corporation’s YouthWorks is a state-run employment program for 14- to 21-year-olds. Participants come from low-income households; and in Worcester, those households are numerous. Worcester’s annual median household income significantly lags the state average.

There were 4,487 YouthWorks participants across 31 Massachusetts cities in 2015.

In Worcester, the program is the work of the Worcester Community Action Council, which in the summer stewards 350 participating youths through activities that include six weeks of work across the city and professional training sessions.

Candidates apply or are sponsored by individual organizations, and potential participants meet three times during a preliminary week to ensure that the teens and young adults will be good fits for their assignments.

Overall, it is a carefully curated program, adapted from the Signal Success curriculum that is deployed by Commonwealth Corp. to more than 50 organizations that work to advance career education for youth.

“Dependability is a huge thing,” said Anne Berrigan, program director of Youth Employment Initiatives at Commonwealth Corporation, noting that for many of the participants, this is their first experience in a formal work setting. “There’s a lot of testing out, and practicing skills … [in understanding] what employers expect you to bring to this job.” She is quick to add that the program is designed to not only educate but engage youths, with portions dedicated to working toward individual goals.

Case manager Lila Milukas, center, during a weekly YouthWorks education/training session, with participants, clockwise from far right, Jonathan Valladares, Bobby Harris, James Fenner, Shelby Onstott and Jean-Carlos Gomez.

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

Case manager Lila Milukas, center, during a weekly YouthWorks education/training session, with participants, clockwise from far right, Jonathan Valladares, Bobby Harris, James Fenner, Shelby Onstott and Jean-Carlos Gomez.

It is at this junction where youths find themselves around a table with a case manager. This promotes delineation of authority between Commonwealth Corporation and the individual organizations adopting the SummerWorks program, in this case Worcester Community Action Council working in collaboration with the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board.

Additionally it serves as the first steps of a relationship between youths and their case managers. It’s a relationship that will continue through the remainder of the program, all six weeks of work.

Both seizing upon the curriculum’s flexible implementation and integral relationship between case managers and youths, Worcester Community Action Council builds the training program throughout the summer session. Weekly, case managers and their cohorts will congregate, implementing further steps of the Signal Success program, along a trajectory that mirrors their professional development.

“What Worcester is doing is terrific,” said Berrigan, “[Youths] are able to reflect on how to handle different things.”

While WCAC’s YouthWorks program accesses resources both from local participating organizations and grants — the latter of which further limits restrictions on some placement eligibility — YouthWorks is primarily state funded through the workforce board and this dependence could become a limiting factor in the future.

In fiscal 2016, Commonwealth Corp. was afforded $11.5 million in the state budget.

“We’re really lucky, actually,” noted Berrigan. “$11.5 million is the top number that we have had.”

Though the Senate Ways and Means Committee recommendation for fiscal 2017 maintained the $11.5 million, Gov. Charlie Baker’s more than $250 million in vetoes trimmed the allocation to $9.9 million.

This could affect the number of young people the city is able to employ next summer. However, the Commonwealth Corp. does have other sources of funding; among these have been the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, MassHousing, Unum Foundation and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

About 840 youths applied for this summer’s 350 slots.

Participants the Sun spoke with are very glad to be among the 350.

From left, YouthWorks employees Cathy Tran, Tracy Ho, Thien Hoang, David Kenchanh, James Nguyen and Thomson Tranphi pose in front of their summer workplace, Pho Hien Temple on Dewey Street.

Courtesy WCAC

From left, YouthWorks employees Cathy Tran, Tracy Ho, Thien Hoang, David Kenchanh, James Nguyen and Thomson Tranphi pose in front of their summer workplace, Pho Hien Temple on Dewey Street.

“I entered on my own,” said Angie Morales, 16, who previously — through a different program — worked as a secretary at an apartment complex. This year, through YouthWorks, she is working in childcare.

If not for that job, and all it’s teaching her, she’d be working at Dunkin’ Donuts or someplace similar, she said — just to have something to do over the summer. She credits her father for pointing her to WCAC, and says there is a greater benefit to the program than merely cash from a summer job, because of the gains in both soft and hard career skills.

For cousins Lasso Sackor and Lansana Fofanah, friends and family persuaded them to seek out the program.

“First it was from my classmates when I was a sophomore,” said Fofanah, noting that he waited to enter the program “because I [wanted] to get a new idea for the future.” Ultimately it was Sackor and his previous experience with the program that brought his cousin into the fold.

Friends were influential for Sackor, too, who is in his second summer in the program. The desire to return is easy enough to understand, he said. “This is a great place. All the people are great, friendly.”

The WCAC does its own outreach, including in the city’s schools. But talking with peers is what has gotten many young people decide to apply.

Once they’re in the program, though, it’s all business.

“They’re not being busy for the sake of being busy,” said Ellen Ganley, director of development for WCAC. “Professionally, it opens a door,” she said. She said participants broaden their direct connection to the greater business community, while also working on skills such as networking, a recent addition to the curriculum.

“[It is] the importance of a job and what that means, and the networks and contacts that you make,” she said.

“We would love to see more private-sector employers,” said Berrigan. “YouthWorks is one of the best kept secrets in your town.”

WCAC welcomes inquiries from private employers.

“It’s a good opportunity for the community partners to get to know the youths of the city and break down barriers,” said Sarah Williams, working her eighth summer as a case manager with Worcester’s YouthWorks program.

Word of WCAC’s reputation and longevity is reaching more businesses, which Ganley said is largely thanks to the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “strong leadership and institutions,” such as its Youth Leadership Institute.

WCAC sometimes works with youths affiliated with other programs.

Grace Sliwoski, the YouthGROW coordinator at the Regional Environment Council, said, “Our hiring criteria includes not only income eligibility, but also geographic proximity to our farms, … engagement from applicants in our interviews, and perceived impact the program could have on their lives.” Her organization is hosting 35 youths this summer through a combination of YouthWorks and private funding.

The relationship between the two entities is simultaneously structured and flexible, a approach the state’s YouthWork programs share.

Case managers are tasked with maintaining a relationship with community partners as well as with the youth participants.

“The YouthWorks program is kind of fast-paced” noted Williams. “You have to be organized and jump into it and more or less make it happen.”

That pace is set early on. Around the tables with snacks and notebooks, papers and pens, the youths are trained initially during a three-day session prior to beginning their jobs. The educational component continues through YouthWork’s remaining six weeks.

While the youths universally express an interest in being engaged, it is up to the case managers to keep conversation flowing. This is something that is readily achieved, primarily through a leveling with the youths. Case managers bring openness and an appreciation for their own past histories.

In one educational session — at 9 a.m. on a Friday, in the dead of summer, and after most of the youths had completed their 21 hours of placement work — financial literacy was the theme, explored through a combination of open questions, reading, and activities highlighting how to prioritize expenditures.

Shelby Onstott, a first-time participant, asked, “How do you build good credit?” That led to case manager Lila Milukas carefully deconstructing what might have been dry minutiae about credit cards, auto loans and impulse purchases.

“For me, I’m just learning these things as well,” Milukas said, after outlining the process of credit limit extensions, and occasional pitfalls therein. “I didn’t have a credit card for a long time because I didn’t want to get caught up in it.”

Avoiding impersonal lecturing in lieu of personal engagement is a style the case managers like to use.

In emphasizing this relational component — aided by the fact that case managers provide youths with their weekly paychecks — these group learning settings also promote levity and freedom, embodied in cross-talk, willingness to address the literature at hand, and general enthusiasm for group activities. However, these environments also expose another frank reality of the program: namely, the points of economic disadvantage from which many of these youths arise.

During a “needs versus wants” exercise about managing finances, many walked to the sign marked “Want” when given the option “nutritious food.”

“It’s something that is an option that you have,” said one participant, remarking that nutritious food is more expensive.

About the working life they are embarking on, Williams said that today’s youths “are a little more aware of what it is like, than when I was their age. There is no guarantee that you will be at the same job for 25 years.”

Williams said she brings her vast career history — including painting houses; working at a children’s clothing store, a pottery production studio and a prop company; teaching as an adjunct professor; and her current roles teaching visual arts at Shrewsbury High School and art at Quinsigamond Community College — directly to her designated youths in an effort to show the often winding, but deeply enriching, career journey.

Though the careful orchestration delivered by WCAC is nothing resembling a circus, it is best to hold case managers as consummate jugglers, seeing that all balls in the air are kept so, and maintained as such over the course of the entire multifaceted program.

YouthWorks participants, from left, Bobby Harris, Jean-Carlos Gomez, James Fenner and Shelby Onstott, pose with case manager Lila Milukas.

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

YouthWorks participants, from left, Bobby Harris, Jean-Carlos Gomez, James Fenner and Shelby Onstott, pose with case manager Lila Milukas.

For case managers, this is a job that functions largely out of the office, going from worksite to worksite, listening to and observing students, and discussing the work with supervisors at each individual job.

Be it ensuring that youths are provided water when working outside, or there is a synergistic relationship between YouthWorks’ and employers’ expectations, this attention by case managers to the community partners begins and works around the same metric as with their charged youths: working early-on, hands-on, and elbows-deep. Such dedication has its obvious payoffs, most acutely revealed when community partners re-enroll at YouthWorks.

“It’s great. It’s nice to work with people for multiple years, because then you understand what their schedule is, what they are doing,” said Williams.

Tying all players together at the end are twice-held reviews, once after roughly two weeks on the job, and a final outgoing assessment. While participants may have reservations at first, the educational structure imposed by WCAC fosters a level of professional maturation over the six weeks of work.

First, there is the educational component spread across multiple weeks. Second is the leveraging once again of the relationships developed between youths and their case managers.

“I usually have a little discussion with them, like ‘listen, this is your first time so don’t worry. If there is room for improvement, it’s not the end of the world, we all need improvement,” said Williams. “I explain reviews are something that you need to get used to, because they are going to be part of every job you have for the rest of your life.”

Presented in combination with the youths’ motivation to work, the marked enthusiasm by participants — including returning youths — seems a precise endorsement of the program. For employers, who know these youths for more than 20 hours a week, the impact is evident.

“While we work with most of our youth for several years, we see the most dramatic impact over the six short weeks of our summer program,” observed Sliwoski of REC. “Youth who were previously reluctant to speak at all become confident ambassadors for the program and the farm, leading tours for visitors including our city manager and many elected officials.”

With the 2016 YouthWorks program well underway, it stands to reason that such changes and advances have already begun for a new cohort of Worcester’s next generation.

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