Improved prospects for youths envisioned

2 city centers teach job-readiness skills in empowerment zones

March 27, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The bridge from youth to adulthood can be especially troubled in inner-city Baltimore.

To smooth the passage for city youngsters, two Youth Opportunity -- or YO! -- Centers opened recently in federal empowerment zones in East and West Baltimore: at the former Diamond Press building at 1212 N. Wolfe St., and at 1510 W. Lafayette Ave. The centers offer what experts say is a fresh approach to finding college programs and jobs for teens and young adults ages 14 to 21.

"If they didn't build this, I don't know what we'd be doing. ... I'd be out on the streets doing nothing," said David Finney, 17, of the 1800 block of E. Chase St. "I need some time to get myself together." He was at the east-side center to learn about becoming a carpenter or electrician.

The center, which accepts all youths in the age group living in or near the empowerment zone, offers individualized programs, from classes on the General Educational Development (GED) exam to job-readiness workshops and setting up personal e-mail accounts in the computer lab.

Last year, Baltimore -- among 36 sites nationwide selected for the program -- was awarded $44 million over four years, city officials said, the largest chunk of program money distributed by the federal Department of Labor. A total of $1.37 billion in federal funds will be spent to improve prospects for untrained, unemployed youths.

"If someone falls through the cracks, it's our fault," said the director, Ronald Samuels, an East Baltimore native. "It's an awesome responsibility. It's on us now."

The youths who have showed up face homelessness, brushes with the justice system and broken families. Many of the young women are mothers; most have dropped out of high school. Not everyone reads well. Some have tired of jobs at fast-food restaurants. And they are trying to break a cycle of anger and hopelessness.

"They don't feel like working for McDonald's, but they don't know what to do and how to make it pay," said Nicholas Seldes, 24, of the nonprofit Baltimore-based College Bound Foundation, which is trying to connect some youths at the east-side center to local community colleges.

As Roderica Mills, a GED instructor, observed: "They are willing to put forth the energy to have a new life. They see they need the skills." The youths are assigned trainers called "employment advocates" and "job coaches" to advise them on dressing, being on time and interviewing for jobs, Samuels said.

About 50 have registered at the east-side center since it opened a month ago; the program in West Baltimore has signed up between 400 and 500, officials said.

Ronald B. Mimcy, a Columbia University professor of social work who has written about nurturing young black men, said in an interview last week that the program departs from support systems that focused on negative "at-risk" factors, such as illiteracy, drugs or crime. Instead, the program's philosophy is to accentuate the positive, not the problems.

"All youths are assets, regardless of circumstances. They are not treated any differently because they may lack parental and neighborhood resources," Mimcy said.

Along with behavior to be learned is behavior to be unlearned: "A nice pair of boots, pants and a brand new leather coat: clothes don't make you. They need to hear it," said Gregory Harcum, a senior job coach who teaches self-esteem. Staff members also undergo training to understand the world of their charges.

In a GED class, a short essay question asked students about their dream career. Cynell T. Brown, 20, wrote that she wished to rise high in the fashion field but recognized that she has to start with the basics, noting that "you have to learn to sew."

Poetry readings, movie nights, a roller skating party, a library and a youth council are among the extracurricular activities that give the center the atmosphere of an urban college student union. The youth council will help choose the library books, Samuels said.

A city official overseeing the YO! Centers, Patricia A. Waddell, said, "It's a system, not a patchwork of programs, and it's full steam ahead in recruiting." The goal is to serve 2,000 Baltimore youths, she said, by equipping them with the skills to find and keep a job.

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