City's YO! centers aim to keep giving youths opportunity for better life

Program helping them get GEDs, jobs faces future without grant

September 20, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

At a young age, just a teenage high school dropout, Robert Green was a drug dealer with a nagging conscience that rang out every time he tried to dodge a narcotics officer or wonder about a rival street hustler.

Green, now 20, found his way to one of the city's Youth Opportunity Community Centers, a federally funded program in place since 2000 to help inner-city teens and young adults find a positive path in life.

"They got me out of the streets," said Green, who attends the Westside Youth Opportunity Community Center on West Lafayette Avenue, where he is working toward his General Educational Development diploma. "Without the center, I'd be locked up or dead right now because I would've still been hustling."

Now he is hoping the city's five youth opportunity centers -- better known for their multicolored, youthful-looking insignia, YO! -- stay open long enough to help more people like him.

For the past four years, the youth centers have provided help to more than 3,800 people between age 14 and 21 who want to earn a high school diploma or GED, find a job or receive counseling in areas such as life skills or safe sex.

Most who come to the centers have quit school and are lost in the streets. Many have young children to care for, don't know how to read or write, have criminal records or can't fill out a job application.

"We're dealing with the hardest of the hard to serve," said Ernest Dorsey, director of the youth opportunity program.

But the program is in its final year of funding -- a five-year, $44 million federal grant from the Department of Labor ends in June -- and city officials have not raised enough money to sustain it beyond next summer.

The five YO! centers are operated by the city's Office of Employment Development, which will launch a fund-raising drive next month to keep them open.

Success stories

Officials will court past partners of the program and nonprofit foundations for money.

They'll talk about the centers' success stories, such as people like Green, who finished a job training program and found construction work.

Or about others such as Angela Smith, 22, who earned a high school diploma on her own but soon had two daughters and no job skills before turning to the center for help. She works as a nursing assistant at Maryland General Hospital and moved into her first home alone with her children.

"It's a big step but it's something I wanted to do," Smith said of moving out of her mother's apartment. "I think I have come further than people thought I would come. I've come further than I thought I would come."

Of the 3,800 participants over the first four years, 1,444 have found jobs, completed a job skills program, returned to high school or enrolled in college. Another 512 have earned a high school diploma or GED. These are significant feats in a city with such high dropout and unemployment rates.

But the centers are a self-driven system; no one is forced to participate. Hundreds of people who have enrolled in programs attend infrequently and gain little benefit from the centers.

Karen Sitnick, director of the Office of Employment Development, said the Baltimore program has met three of the four performance goals asked of it by the Labor Department in return for getting the grant and is close on the fourth measure. Satisfied goals include the number of people enrolled in programs, those placed in jobs and hours of participation. The city centers lag slightly behind in their rate of completion in various programs.

"We're going to try real hard to demonstrate that we've been effective," Sitnick said.

It will be a tougher sell than Sitnick's staff had bargained. By now, program officials figured they would have several years' worth of strong data showing the program has been working. But Sitnick and Dorsey say only in the past year have they finally started seeing positive results because fewer than expected people were using the free centers early on.

"There was a sense of, `If we build it they will come.' And after those first few years, they didn't come," Sitnick said. "We had to work on getting people to trust us, to trust that we could really help them get a diploma, that we really could help them get a job.

"And it's really challenging to keep them on the straight and narrow when they might make a whole lot more money selling drugs," she said, "and probably could."

Community buy-in to the centers is imperative for them to continue, but program directors are still trying to gauge if it is there for them.

Looking ahead

For now, program officials are trying to set aside close to $3 million in unspent grant money by the end of the funding cycle. On a shoestring budget, that cash could allow the youth centers to stay open for an extra year. But under that scenario, the five youth centers will likely be pared down to one or two sites offering far fewer programs and services.

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