Youth employment program on the rise

on November 9, 2009

If you ask Jay Leonhardy how to improve his city, he stresses a simple focus for a complex problem: Provide quality employment opportunities to Richmond’s youth.

“We see a very direct correlation between reducing youth involved in crime and participation in our work progam,” Leonhardy said, pointing to graduation and high school exit exam rates among program participants as indicating they’re less likely to get involved in crime.

Last year, 94 percent of eligible participants graduated or passed exit exams, Leonhardy said. That compares with a statewide graduation rate of less than 60 percent for students from low-income families.

As Division Program Manager for Richmond YouthWORKS, the city’s youth-employment program, Leonhardy oversees an operation that employed 705 local teens and young adults ages 16-21 this year at 140 Bay Area public and private work sites.

The program has paid out about $648,000 in wages this year, Leonhardy said.

“This offers immediate local economic stimulus,” Leonhardy said. “Most of the money we raise and pay goes right back into the local economy.”

Alia Anderson went from wayward teen to polished young professional riding the fast-track to a stable city job, thanks in part to YouthWORKS.

Anderson, 21, first enrolled in the program 5 years ago, when her mother, a bus driver who raised five children alone, took her to the YouthWORKS offices because she was concerned about her daughter’s poor grades and increasingly disobedient behavior.

Alia Anderson, one of 705 local youths who earned paychecks with YouthWORKS last summer, worked at the City Attorney's office.

Alia Anderson, one of 705 local youths who earned paychecks with YouthWORKS last summer, worked at the City Attorney's office.

Anderson said the change was immediate.

“I went from mostly F’s to nothing worse than C’s,” said Anderson, who graduated from De Anza High School in 2006.

With her mother working long hours, Anderson said she leaned heavily on mentors, tutors and case managers at YouthWORKS, who helped her transfer from John F. Kennedy High School and encouraged her to enroll in life skills, interviewing, hygiene and other after-school courses through the program.

This summer, Anderson worked as an administrative intern in the city’s City Attorney’s Office for $8.25 per hour. She did so well that she was retained by the office after the summer program was complete, and currently earns $10 per hour, 24 hours per week.

In six months, if she continues to impress, Anderson said she hopes to be retained as a full-time employee in the office.

“I would love to work here long term, and I know I can if I keep doing what’s expected of me,” she said.

The program was restarted in 2004, when RichmondWORKS director Sal Vaca, former mayor Irma Anderson and Leonhardy, who was Anderson’s chief of staff, decided to work toward fundraising for youth employment. A similar program went defunct in 2000 when federal funding dried up, Leonhardy said.

“We got about $200,000 from the city’s general fund and we raised about $100,000 from the community to start,” Leonhardy said.

One of the original private donors was Chevron Corp., which helped the program launch with a $50,000 donation.

Chevron’s sponsorship has continued and grown. This year, the multinational energy company donated $106,000.

“YouthWORKS helps provide windows of opportunity for motivated Richmond youth,” said Chevron spokesman Brent Tippen. “Chevron believes that providing real opportunities for Richmond youth is one way to create a more vibrant economy and detract from youth violence.”

Leonhardy noted that with 705 enrollees in a city of 100,000, Richmond has the highest per capita summer youth employment program in the state.

The youths enrolled are paid $8.25 per hour for a maximum of 121 hours of summer employment, Leonhardy said. Other benefits include access to self-improvement courses and a computer lab. Anderson said she still routinely goes to the program’s 25th Street offices to use the Internet.

Other successful enrollees include three of Anderson’s brothers and sisters.

Anderson’s older sister has worked at Chevron Corp. for two years, a job she got through a YouthWORKS internship.

And the program also offers a respite to youths in more dire straits than Anderson. Leonhardy points to Gustavo Ponce as a telling example.

Ponce, 17, was running with a north Richmond sect of the notorious Surenos street gang less than two years ago. Today, he works as an office assistant in a North Richmond insurance agency, employment he got through YouthWORKS last summer.

“Without the program, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Ponce said. “But now, I am always positive, I know that I don’t want to fall back into the negative and I am going to stay out of trouble.”

Leonhardy said he expects local, federal and private support to continue.

“Our goal has always been to get to 1,000 kids and a $1 million program,” Leonhardy said. “We are at 700 kids and $700,000 in the fifth year, so we’re on our way.”

For more information on the program and how to enroll, click here

1 Comment

  1. alia anderson on November 16, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    to correct a statement that was quoted wrong I never said my mother couldnt afford internet however I do regularly go to the office on 25th street to use the computers..



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