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Program helps put Lexington youth to work

Local businesses get chance to give back to community

By Terri Darr McLean
Bluegrass Area Development District

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 29, 2014) — So many success stories … so little time. That could easily be Mattie Morton’s mantra.

As program administrator for Lexington’s Summer Youth Employment Program, Morton is hard-pressed to recount all the successes the program has enjoyed since 2007 when it began providing paid employment opportunities for local youth.

Jhamiel Clay, a sophomore at Lafayette assigned to the Bluegrass Area Development District. (Photo by Tab Patterson)
Jhamiel Clay, a sophomore at Lafayette assigned to the Bluegrass Area Development District. (Photo by Tab Patterson)

But when all else fails, she boils it down to one sentence: “This is just an awesome program.”

Considering the numbers alone, it’s easy to take Morton at her word. The program hires 225 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 to work at 100 or more local businesses for six weeks each summer. This year, there were 268 young people on a waiting list.

The program, which is implemented by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s Division of Youth Services, was created to provide the youth with “real and meaningful” work experience — something that is increasingly important in helping them discover such goals as going to college and finding full-time employment, she said.

Job shadowing, mentoring and career guidance are important features of the program, as are the work readiness and life skills workshops that go along it.

The youth — whose families must meet specific income guidelines — work 20 hours a week, in June and July. They are paid through LFUCG, so there’s no cost to the participating businesses. Child care centers, offices, nursing homes and horse farms are just a few of the work settings.

“The most beneficial thing I’ve seen come out of this program is that the youth are motivated to earn their own money,” Morton said. “I love seeing the youths’ faces when they pick up their first check. It’s priceless.”

Youth worker Takia Huggins-Smith agreed that making her own money is exciting but said there’s an added benefit.

“The program is good for helping you learn to budget, too, because whenever you get paid, you think you’re going to have more than you really do,” said Huggins-Smith, a Henry Clay High School junior who works for the Bluegrass Area Development District, mostly in aging services. “I already had my first check spent before I got it. Next check, I’ll budget my spending a little better.”

Jhamiel Clay, a sophomore at Lafayette also assigned to BGADD, has realized still another benefit — one that can’t be measured in dollars and cents: navigating public transportation to get to and from work, as well as working with other people in a professional setting. The latter was the easy part, he said.

“It has really helped me a lot, meeting people,” he said.

The young people aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Summer Youth Employment Program. Businesses, which have the opportunity to contribute to the “community and the future of the young people within it,” also reap rewards.

“It’s a win-win situation for us,” said Lydia Jacobs, program specialist for the Bluegrass Area Agency on Aging and Independent Living, who along with Jamie Peck oversees Huggins-Smith, Clay and one other youth worker, Celena Gray. “They are a huge help — a huge help.”

Jacobs said BGADD’s youth workers primarily perform clerical duties — filing, making copies, faxing documents, etc. “It’s really endless what they can do. Some of them have to be taught, and that’s fine with us,” she added.

“Businesses get to see what we see on a regular basis when we work with youth,” Morton said. “They are able to mentor a youth, and they love it. I love doing site visits at businesses because this is when you realize that the business supervisor is committed to the purpose of the program. They are very proud of the work the youth has done.

Some of the participating businesses even find employees through the program.

“Dogtown is one of my favorite sites because over the past seven years, they have hired every summer youth worker we have sent them, ages 16 and above,” Morton said. “Tanbark is another great location. Tanbark has hired summer youth workers from the past and given them training that will assist them in future jobs.”

Morton doesn’t hesitate to encourage businesses to get involved. “This is an opportunity for everyone to give back to the community and the future of the young people within it.”

For more information on becoming involved in the Summer Youth Employment Program, visit www.lexingtonky.gov or call Morton at 859-246-4323.

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