COLUMBIA — Kim Partney, the city’s Career Awareness Related Experience program coordinator, took a tour last Thursday of the office and classroom space at 110 Orr St. that will soon hold every branch of the CARE program, which focuses on education and job placement for low-income and at-risk teenagers.
Earlier that same afternoon, Partney sat in the program’s office at 800 N. Providence Road and compared it to the new location.
“It has kind of a youthful feel,” Partney said. “It doesn’t feel quite as staid in social services as this place. It has glass and red shiny metal. It’s beautiful. It’s pretty.”
The move is more cost effective, Partney said, estimating CARE will save at least $5,000 a year. The Orr Street location has less square feet than the sum of previous locations, but it is directly across the street from the Wabash bus station, which maintains the program’s accessibility to the students it serves. In past years, CARE has had up to three leases for separate locations around the city, making rent payments higher and decentralizing the program.
Some rental spaces at the Orr Street location are still under construction, but in time, a dance studio and other businesses will join the CARE program.
“I think it will be nice in the future when businesses are here,” said Susan Wood, CARE Gallery coordinator. “It will hopefully bring the community together.”
Although CARE runs all year, the operation accelerates in the summer, when almost 200 people between the ages of 14 and 18 work part-time positions paid for by the city and supplied by a local employer. This facet of the program connects students with employers, local government and the city itself.
“I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be a stakeholder in this,” Partney said.
CARE Gallery is only offered in the summer, and it is funded largely by grants from the city, the Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs and the Missouri Arts Council. Gallery students are paid minimum wage for producing works of art, which are presented at the end of the summer in a group show.
The gallery is the first arm of CARE to start at the Orr Street location, which opened Monday.
Ian Reid, 16, is in his third year working at the art gallery.
“I get paid to do the stuff that I like to do,” he said. “It’s definitely a good job for me.”
Reid said the new space on Orr Street is much more open and functional than the gallery’s previous locations.
Skyler Goodale, 15, a second-year participant, said he uses the money he earns at the art gallery to help out his family and pay for food.
“My favorite experience (from last year) was having the feeling of having a job and learning,” Goodale said. “It’s harder than people can imagine.”
CARE also partners with other local groups to provide additional programs. In 2007, 34 high school students participated in Missouri Options, a partnership between CARE and local high schools that helps potential dropouts navigate earning their diploma or GED while holding down a job.
“It’s absolutely one of the best programs and collaborations that I’ve been a part of, because it works,” Partney said.
Jacquelyn Watts is just one example of the program’s success. Watts, 19, received her diploma from Hickman High School this spring. She wants to study cosmetology after working with CARE, which set her up with a job at a local hair salon and barbershop.
Watts described how she perceived her experiences.
“I mean, you’re working, so it’s a serious environment,” she said. “But you can still have fun, still enjoy being at work.”
Harmony Evans, 16, started her first job in 2006 with the help of the CARE program. Last summer, she was partnered with Envy clothing store, and she now wants to own a similar business later in life.
Evans had her first work experience two years ago. Now, as a receptionist at CARE’s Providence location, she plays a part in finding jobs for her peers, paying forward the social service that she said taught her responsibility, leadership and proper behavior in a work environment.
Many local businesses work with CARE to provide employment opportunities, including Maude Vintage, a resale clothing shop and long-time partner of the program. Sabrina Braden, owner of Maude Vintage, can relate to the participants she hires; when she was 13 years old and living in Springfield, Braden participated in a program similar to CARE.
“Personally, I think it catapulted me into the working world in a positive way,” Braden said
It’s this opportunity to build character from work experience that defines the Columbia program.
“We have a mission at the CARE program,” Partney said. “Ultimately, what we want is for each kid to develop their potential. The other goal is to get the community and employers to invest in these kids.”
Braden said customers sometimes ask her about the new employee working in Maude Vintage; she explains the employee is here from the CARE program. Though most people don’t know about CARE, she said, they seem proud of the city’s role in the program after Braden explains it.
Aubrey Coleman, a home school communicator at West Junior High School, teaches the men’s empowerment class for CARE. He said the program is beneficial for participants as well as the community. Coleman called the employment program a win-win situation for both parties: the city pays the participants’ wages, and the money students earn can be used as a tool for independence.
The work experience most young people envision when looking for their first job involves fast food or pushing carts at a grocery store, Coleman said.
“The CARE program doesn’t pigeonhole people into those types of positions,” he said. “If you want to be a lawyer, we’ll put you in a law office.”
Coleman said CARE emphasizes professional positions because the focus of the program is practical education. It provides valuable experience to youths who have no previous exposure to a work environment.
“It’s like a first step on the moon,” Coleman said, referring to when someone finds work. “It’s their first opportunity to have a job and make money.”