Original article by Sheila Stroup in The Times Picayune (June 6, 2015). Link to the original article here.
Renaissance Project’s Summer Youth Employment Program creates higher expectations in young people
Last year, when Dayette Hopkins heard about the Regrowing Community Summer Youth Employment Program, she decided to apply for it. Even though she was not quite 15, she was excited about the idea of going to work and making her own money.
“My dad and I sat down and talked about it,” she says. “He told me it would be a lot of responsibility, and I told him I wanted to do it, so we filled out the paperwork.”
Now Hopkins, who will be a junior at the International School of New Orleans, can’t wait to go back to work this week.
Her favorite part of her job last summer was working with elderly people at a senior center in the Lower 9th Ward.
“They really touched my heart,” she says. “I’m a really shy person, and I overcame my shyness. Now, they love me, and they want me to come back.”
Hopkins also liked getting a paycheck every two weeks.
“I bought everything I needed for school, and I even had a little left over to help my dad,” she says. “My father and I both think the program is great.”
The summer employment program is part of the Renaissance Project, the nonprofit organization Greta Gladney founded in 2001. Her aim was to improve the quality of life in her neighborhood, the Lower 9th Ward, by increasing access to healthy food and providing educational and economic opportunities.
As time passed, she expanded to include low-income communities of color throughout New Orleans. The Renaissance Project has been a Second Harvest member agency for several years and operates food pantries around the city.
For the second summer, it will nourish young people in another way. The Regrowing Community Summer Youth Employment Program, envisioned by Gladney and funded by a generous grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, enables the Renaissance Project to hire 60 young men and women, ages 14 to 20, for summer employment.
“We pay them a living wage of $10 an hour,” Gladney says. “My concern working with youth and with families was to give them higher expectations, expectations other than a minimum wage job.”
There had been other summer employment programs in the city where young people earned around $5 an hour, but she didn’t think that was enough.
“If we only paid them $5 an hour, then a minimum wage job would look really good to them,” she says. “To break the cycle of poverty, we have to raise expectations.”
Gladney knew the only way they could pay $10 an hour, though, was to get funds from somewhere. Besides paying the young people for working, she would need money to feed them lunch and help with transportation costs.
So she contacted the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“To my surprise and delight, they gave me everything I asked for,” she says.
Last summer, the young people interned with such nonprofit organizations as Junebug Productions, Boys Town of New Orleans, Kids Rethink, BreakOUT! and the Lower 9th Ward Village.
“This year we’d like to get businesses involved, too,” Gladney says.
Several businesses have already agreed to host students, including Stella Jones Gallery, St. Roch Market and Hewitt & Washington Architects.
The program starts this week, and there are still a few slots available for summer interns and opportunities for local businesses and nonprofit groups to get involved. The students will work 25 hours a week for six weeks.
“For some last summer, that was a significant amount of income for their household,” Gladney says.
The program begins on Thursday, June 11, with a 2-day orientation, which will include a segment on fiscal literacy. Last summer, the students had a rude awakening when they received their first paychecks and saw that they were less than they expected. They didn’t know about deductions.
“The students from last year’s program helped us shape the program this year,” Gladney says.
Interns will learn how to be responsible citizens and will develop leadership skills. They’ll learn how to conduct themselves at job interviews and how to write a resume. They’ll learn the importance of being on time and how to work with other people.
“We’ll teach them how to conduct themselves in a business environment,” Gladney says.
Brandon Marcadel, 20, graduated from McDonogh 35 in May 2014 and was in the first group of interns last summer. He worked at Students at the Center, an independent nationally-recognized writing program operating out of McDonogh 35. He wrote essays, led discussions and mentored younger students. Because of the program he ended up changing his major at Xavier University during his freshman year.
“I decided I wanted to be an English teacher,” he says.
And because of the program, he also got his first car before he went off to Xavier.
“I made enough for the down-payment, and my mom is helping me pay for it,” he says. “My mom loved the program. She thought it was great that I spent the summer gaining more knowledge and getting a little money before college.”
This summer, he’s working at Stein Mart and looking forward to his sophomore year at Xavier.
For Ciera Steward, a senior at Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, her job last summer was memorable.
“I got to see new faces and do things I never did before,” she says. “I felt like I was in the business world.”
Steward, 18, was one of four interns who worked at the Renaissance Project office at 5234 North Claiborne Ave., and at the senior center on the first floor in the same building.
“One of the things we did was travel around to the other sites to take pictures and talk to the workers and write a blog about the program,” she says. “We got to work with people we’d never met before, and it helped me realize what the real world is like.”
Steward plans to go to nursing school after she graduates, and she’s looking forward to another summer working with the Youth Employment Program.
“I’m on dance team and volleyball team at school, so I’ll save the money I make for expenses and for my senior budget,” she says.
For Audrey Browder, administrative assistant at the Renaissance Project, the most remarkable thing about the Regrowing Community Summer Youth Employment Program was seeing how the teenagers changed over the summer.
“It was great to see them work together and learn to support each other,” she says. “It was exciting to watch them grow up.”