Jobs give youths pride

Horizons broaden for teens working in federal program

Academics are foundation

July 26, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Stacks of classroom furniture line the darkened hallways of Patapsco High School in eastern Baltimore County. On an afternoon thick with haze, doors yawn open to catch the slightest gift of a summer breeze.

Here in a school mostly shuttered for the summer, Edward Wiley Jr., 14, and fellow members of Summer Enrichment Camp -- a branch of America's summer jobs program -- are expanding their horizons through the program born in the tumultuous 1960s.

Not long ago, the soft-spoken Wiley thought he was headed for the steel mill like his father and grandfather. But now he sees opportunities beyond the broken promises of his blue-collar neighborhood.

"My father worked his fingers to the bone in the steel mills," the Dundalk teen-ager says. "The mill laid him off after 25 years, and now he goes to work at midnight as a temporary worker. There is no place here for me."

Across the country, nearly half a million teen-agers like Wiley are cleaning public parks, painting wall murals and repairing furniture, earning $5.15 an hour as they sharpen their academic skills.

They are the army of what the federal government calls the disadvantaged, those below the poverty level or sharing other social and academic hardships.

Started as the Neighborhood Youth Corps in the mid-1960s, the federal program was billed as an attack on joblessness during President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society." In reality, it tried to keep young people off the streets during violent social upheaval in the nation's cities and institutions.

Across the decades and without fanfare, the program has evolved into a more focused employment system with participants, like Wiley, given a steady foundation of academics and job skills such as punctuality and teamwork.

This year's federal jobs budget: $871 million.

"Rather than a handout, it's now a helping hand," says Peter Hamm, a Labor Department spokesman. "Civil rights leaders today are talking economic empowerment for minority youngsters, not overthrowing City Hall."

Like their counterparts nationwide, the 6,900 students in Maryland's Summer Youth Employment and Training Program work five days a week in libraries, schools, community colleges, state parks and in a small but growing number of private businesses. They also take classes in reading, mathematics and computers and go on weekly field trips.

In Maryland, about $13 million will be spent on the summer jobs program, $1 million in Baltimore County. While county officials don't track unemployment by region, they say communities such as Essex and Dundalk suffered most from the downsizing of steel companies, cuts at the General Motors Corp. auto plant and the closing of plants such as Western Electric and Lever Bros.

"It's rather stark in some of the east-side neighborhoods," explains veteran social studies teacher Joseph Wesolowski, who works with the summer jobs program. "In some cases, the weekly check these kids earn is the only paycheck in their family besides welfare."

Sean Fleming, director of a group at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus, recalls watching a proud teen-ager hand her first paycheck to her father this summer. "It went straight for the family rent payment, and she was very proud of that," Fleming says.

In addition to their daily work, many teens in Maryland are required to maintain a daily journal. If they don't have a legitimate reason for missing work, they don't get paid.

Robert Andersen, head of the science department in a Baltimore middle school and summer job counselor at Gunpowder Falls State Park, says it's critical for the teen-agers to "get a reality check preparing them for the workplace."

This summer, Andersen says, one member of the program was asked to relinquish a pack of cigarettes. She refused, unleashed a torrent of profanity at Andersen and was tossed from the program.

"I'm glad she's gone," says Shania Manigo, 14. "She pulled us down."

Many of the program's teen-agers live below the poverty level; some reside in single-parent households. Four teen-agers who work at the community college in Catonsville live in a group home. One is pregnant. Some summer workers are provided transportation by teachers. Others hitch a ride with a family member or friend.

"For some of these young people, this is the first time in their lives they can begin to trust someone," says LaVerne Robertson, a career management instructor for the Community College of Baltimore County. Several dozen teen-agers work at the Catonsville and Dundalk campuses.

For the red-haired Wiley -- 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 260 pounds -- it was not an issue of trust but a growing inability to handle the rage he felt when pupils at General John Stricker Middle School teased him about his size.

Suspended several times for fighting, the teen-ager's frustration grew. "Ed was at risk," says Jon Shinnick, leader of Summer Enrichment Camp and Wiley's social studies teacher. With counseling from Shinnick, Wiley learned to walk away from his tormentors.

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