Erik has a summer job thousands of kids don't

August 13, 1993|By Katherine D. Ramirez | Katherine D. Ramirez,Staff Writer

This summer, 14-year-old Erik Brooks is playing dodge ball, reading short stories aloud and spelling words. He's earning $4.25 an hour doing so.

Teaching at the Margaret Brent Reading Camp in Baltimore, Erik helped 6- and 7-year-olds improve their writing, reading and math skills.

Sitting at a desk, the children clustered around him at their desks, Erik recently conducted a writing lesson. "Can you think of any compound words?" he asked the small class.

He leaned toward a struggling student and provided some examples. "Grandparent, classwork . . . you know some more," he said. All of the children quickly wrote down the words.

This is Erik's first job. He didn't figure he would be teaching second-graders this summer; he thought he might be working part time at his Uncle Bobby's barber shop. But he said he couldn't afford to work just part time.

Erik is one of 71,000 youths either seeking employment or currently employed in Baltimore this summer.

More than one in five are still unemployed.

Erik got his job through a jobs program run by Baltimore Commonwealth, a public-private partnership that offers education and career assistance to city youths.

Commonwealth Summer Jobs, which employs the youths from June through this month, is funded under the 1982 Federal Job Training Partnership Act.

Baltimore initially got $3.2 million for jobs this summer. Then in July, the city got an extra $800,000 that provided 600 more jobs.

Altogether, Commonwealth accepted 3,800 youths from among 6,395 applicants.

All were placed in jobs throughout the city, and earn the minimum wage.

Federal grant trends determine how many youths Commonwealth can employ each summer. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, federal grants for employment programs for disadvantaged youths consistently nose-dived. For example, from 1986 to 1991, federal money that went to the Baltimore program was practically cut in half, from $5.8 million to $3.1 million.

Applicants must be Baltimore residents between the ages of 14 and 21.

They must also meet a stringent family income requirement -- a maximum yearly income of $16,360 for a family of four, which is about the national poverty level.

Karen Sitnick, Commonwealth's assistant director of youth services, said that the goals of the jobs program are to alleviate unemployment and provide the youths with "a hook to get into the real job market."

A lot of them need the money, she said, "and this program allows them to bring home some money for their family and also helps their self-confidence and self-esteem."

"We want the youths engaged intellectually as well as manually," said Ms. Sitnick.

"Our goal is to give them basic employment skills, career opportunities and an idea of what they want to do with their futures."

She said she believes that the sooner these youths experience the real world of work, the better their chances of having success in life.

Brenda Hubbard supervises the six Commonwealth youths employed at the reading camp at 201 E. 26th St. She described Erik's ability to get his students to open up to him as "remarkable."

"He relates to his students because he's so young and so are they," said Ms. Hubbard.

"They are not intimidated to ask about things they don't understand."

She said that Erik was timid the first time he taught, but he eventually warmed to his new role.

"I wasn't really scared," said Erik. "It felt like home. I have a little 8-year-old brother."

The prospect of an idle summer at home also motivated Erik to find a job.

"I knew I didn't want to sit in my house all summer," he said, like his twin brother, Michael, who has to stay home to baby-sit their younger brother Johnathon.

Erik and his two brothers share a bedroom in an aging Waverly rowhouse. Erik says the dwelling is cramped but livable. He doesn't complain about sharing whatever he has with his brothers.

He said he doesn't even mind splitting his paycheck with them so they can buy clothes and other necessities.

"I know that my brother would do the same for me," Erik said.

Erik applied for summer employment after his guidance counselor at Chinquapin Middle School recommended the Commonwealth program. He was accepted during the last week of school.

"My parents think my job is good," said Erik. "They didn't think that too many people would be accepted. They were surprised when I was."

Commonwealth also sponsors academic enrichment programs for teen-agers.

Through the College Dreams program, Erik and 100 other recent eighth-grade graduates experienced college life for two weeks. Chosen for their strong academic records, the youths lived in dormitories on the Johns Hopkins University campus and took ** classes in time management, high school preparation and basic English and math.

Erik said he doesn't think many of his friends from middle school are working this summer. Although he said there are things about his job he does not like, such as not being able to walk to work -- the job is a few miles from his home -- he is grateful to be employed.

"I'm helping out around the house [financially] and buying my own clothes," he said. "I'm thinking of saving up half my money to buy a car."

Erik said he's also gained personally from the job.

"At first I used to be real shy, but I like talking [to people] now," he said. "[The job] has changed me. There were a lot of people I had to meet to get here."

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