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Summer Jobs: GRCF helps youth find that first job

Darnell Robinson works at Comprenew as his summer job.

Antonio Dyson works at Comprenew as his summer job.

Ciara Phillips works at Comprenew as her summer job.

Abel Berends works at Comprenew as his summer job.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, connects nonprofits with youth looking for summer jobs. The result is a win-win, with benefits lasting far beyond the summer.
The Summer Youth Employment program goes far beyond the summer, says Marcia Rapp, Grand Rapids Community Foundation's VP of Programs. Not only has the W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided the program with a $900,000 grant -- enough to fund the program for two consecutive summers -- but the benefits extend long after summer has come to a close.

The program launched in 2011 with the intention of helping the youth, aged 14-24, in underserved neighborhoods find and maintain jobs. The need for this program stems from high unemployment rates. Rapp says some neighborhoods have unemployment rates for adults as high as 30 percent. When adults who have lost employment are competing for the entry level jobs usually held by teens and college students, it's harder for younger applicants to find work. GRCF helps by allocating the grant money to participating organizations, enabling them to take on this sector of the workforce and provide them with valuable job experience. This year, GRCF has selected 12 nonprofit organizations including the City of Grand Rapids, Jubilee Jobs, Kids Food Basket, Steepletown Neighborhood Services, Hispanic Center of West Michigan and Project COOL, among others.

"We were calling it summer employment," Rapp says, "but what we discovered by talking with the grantees is that most of them had year-round programs. It's more intensive in the summer, but they do have follow-up. If not work, they are touching bass on what are [a student's] goals, how are they doing in school, how are they maintaining what they learned so that they're ready for a job next year."

The organizations are committed to helping their young employees think about the future. What's after high school, and what will your next job be? Rapp says there's a lot of talk about setting goals and thinking through how these goals can be achieved. "It's the first jobs," she says, "where you really learn how to work."

A big focus, Rapp says, is financial literacy, and thinking through how a student can achieve college, or eventually own homes and cars. "Financial literacy comes into knowing how much things are going to cost, and how to start saving so you don't just spend everything the minute you get it," she says. "Some of the young people might be supplementing their family income as well, so having the skills to know how to make your dollars go further and how to plan for emergencies and the future is really important. I don't think anybody talks about that with young people."

Earlier this year, GRCF held a training where they brought in the grantees to talk about what had gone well the previous year. What Rapp says she learned was that anyone who didn't have a year-round component in the first year wanted to add one, and that "really solid training for the young people is absolutely critical."

With additional funds from the Kellogg Foundation, that was able to happen. "They're coming from all kinds of different places and experiences, and there are best practices in the field that need to happen," Rapp says.

She says that some of the participating youth come from foster care. "You talk about kids who may have been written off or feel like they aren't worthy of a job," she says. "Giving them access to training and jobs and these goals they can achieve is stupendous."

Participants don't just walk away from the program with money. They develop a skill, build a resume and earn a valid reference. They've learned how to dress and behave in the workforce, and what it's like to simply hold down a job. It's a solid, entry level building block into future employment. And, there are a lot of new experiences that can be had. Kids who worked at Spectrum got to ride in the helicopters. Some learn how to garden, and others disassemble and recycle computers. Last year, Bethany Christian Services and their youth partnered with Habitat for Humanity and built 25 homes in Grand Rapids. "That's learning construction skills and teamwork," Rapp adds.

In addition to those 25 homes, the youth mowed 1800 lawns, recycled 4000 computers, and baked over 3600 cookies. Other skills learned include photography, office work, customer service, event planning and even mortuary services.

"With Project COOL, their model of doing youth employment is to partner with a business," Rapp says. "[The business] will pay for a certain number of students, or be willing to shepherd a new, young person if it's paid for by philanthropy."

One student worked at a funeral home for a year, then continued on for two more years. She eventually went into mortuary science as a career. One young man worked with the city in urban planning before deciding to make a career out of it. At the Hispanic Center, Rapp recalls a young man who had some interactions with the juvenile justice system. His desire, when working with the Hispanic Center, was to prevent younger kids from going down the same path. "These are life-changing opportunities," Rapp says.

Youth are selected after an application process, and different organization have different requirements for the employees they take on. Katelyn Sandor, Summer Communications and PR Intern, says Bethany Christian Services, for example, looks to see what applications are filled out completely and correctly, and conducts interviews to ascertain how serious a candidate is about getting a job. Project COOL checks in regularly to make sure it's working and troubleshoots if necessary. Sandor maintains a blog here following the progress and activities of the youth.

With all organizations participating beige nonprofits, funded with philanthropic dollars, Rapp says shareholders should be happy to see that the end product is a trained student. "They're making money," she says, "but they're also building their dreams."

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by ADAM BIRD
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