I recently had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to visit Washington, D.C. to talk to lawmakers about the need to support legislation that helps young people get on — and stay on — the right track.
I spoke at a briefing on Capitol Hill with young people and program directors from across the country — from rural, urban and Native American communities — who all had the same message: Programs that serve out-of-school, out-of-work young people change lives, and with more funding they could help even more struggling young Americans.
I can say for certain that I would never have had this opportunity, or gotten where I am in life today, without the help of YO! Baltimore. YO! is a youth development program that provides the support and resources young people need to reconnect to the mainstream and build a future for themselves.
After neglecting my studies in high school, I was lucky to find this program when I did. I was paired with a program advocate and other mentors who encouraged me and renewed my interest in learning. With their help, I prepared for and earned my GED. Since graduating from YO!, I have enrolled part-time at Baltimore City Community College — something I had never imagined for myself or even thought was possible before the program. I see the value in continuing my education, thanks to the lessons I learned in YO!, and I am working toward a degree in accounting.
YO! also helped me develop the job skills I would need to support myself. Through the program, I was offered a paid internship at City Hall, in then-City Council President Sheila Dixon's office. Having made a good impression at my first job, I was offered a full-time position in the Constituent Services Office when Mayor Dixon was sworn in. I am proud to say I still work there today.
Every young person deserves the same opportunities I was given. Every out-of-school, out-of-work young person should have a chance to turn their life around. There are 5 million young people, ages 16 to 24, in the United States who are out of school and out of work. They are more likely to end up in prison than their peers with high school or college diplomas. Those who do graduate from high school, with little or no work experience, lag in the job market as older and more experienced workers compete for a limited number of jobs. They struggle from the beginning to support themselves.
YO! Baltimore has served thousands of young people, improving employment and earnings among participants, increasing educational achievement, lowering teen pregnancy rates and reducing crime. But it could do even more. The federal Youth Opportunity Grant that helped sustain the center expired in 2006 and, although a city grant has kept the program alive, the center is not serving as many youth as they it was able to previously. Support from the city does not cover the entirety of YO!'s annual operating budget, and it relies on grants from other foundations and state departments to stay open.
YO! Baltimore serves 1,000 youths a year, but if federal funding was restored to its previous levels, the center would be able to serve twice as many out-of-school, out-of-work youth. And it's not just in Baltimore — youth development programs across the country are facing the same setbacks.
Now is the time to invest in our future work force and to ensure that all youth have the tools they need to participate as responsible members of their communities. As Congress considers ways to improve employment opportunities, I hope that it will work to ensure that youth benefit from any jobs legislation that is introduced. We cannot afford to perpetuate the cycle of disconnected youth, especially when our economy desperately needs their potential contributions. Young people deserve a fair chance to get the jobs and education that will ensure their futures.
Sharon Jackson lives in Baltimore. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.