Instead of spending her summer sleeping in and hanging out with friends, 15-year-old Ashley Hill spends her days in an office earning money to help her disabled mother pay for groceries and buy clothes for herself.
Hill is one of 160 local teens participating in Columbia’s Career Awareness Related Experience program.
Since 1982, Columbia Parks and Recreation has provided the program for at-risk youth as a way to spend their summer. The main emphasis is to encourage them to look at career opportunities and to connect them with mentors, said Stefan Bradley, education specialist for the program.
Not only does the program provide jobs for the teens with local businesses, but there is an educational component, too. Participants work 22 1/2 hours a week at their jobs and attend 2 ½ hours of class a week.
This is Hill’s second summer with CARE, and she is working as a trainee in the CARE office. Her duties include answering the phones, filing papers and assisting the job coaches. She worked at a day-care center and at the Columbia Environmental Research Center last summer.
“I want to be a lawyer for children, and I understand that doing these types of things will help me pursue my dreams,” Hill said.
Hill heard about the program as an eighth-grader at Oakland Junior High School. Of about 300 applicants per year, only 160 can participate in the program. The trainees are paid by the city, and the program costs the city about $340,000 a year.
“I was tired of depending on my mother,” Hill said. “I wanted to do something for myself. Instead of her helping me, I wanted to help her.”
The city pays the trainees minimum wage for all 25 hours. While it might seem like businesses are getting the workers for free, they are actually taking on quite a responsibility, Bradley said. Each “job coach” is in charge of teaching the CARE student the basic skills of having a job.
“The earlier they learn these skills, the better off they are,” Bradley said.
Brenda Ravenscraft, owner of Bren’s Place, has been a job coach for eight years. Her CARE worker is required to wash dishes, clean, peel potatoes and bus tables. Ravenscraft hopes working with her will make students realize they need to get an education so they will not be stuck doing work like that for the rest of their lives.
“I’m trying to teach them the right work ethics and to be responsible,” she said.
Bradley and Kelton Edmonds, an educational specialist assistant, agree that the educational and vocational components go hand-in-hand. Because most of the participants are less than 16, they would not be able to work if it were not for the program.
“Young people have the opportunity to keep their minds sharp and to get paid for it,” Bradley said.
A career exploration course teaches the trainees additional job skills. The course includes tie-tying and resumé building as well as searching the classified advertising section of a newspaper.
Trainees also attend a reading and writing class and an African-American history course. Edmonds teaches the classes and says the curriculum and small class size are beneficial to the students, allowing them to do things they might not get to do during the regular school year.
“It’s a little more relaxed but not any less disciplined,” Edmonds said.
Youth ages 14 to 18 can participate in the program for up to two summers. Many employees ask for their CARE workers to come back, and Bradley often sees alumni of CARE out at jobs in the community.
The eight-week program ends today with a banquet to recognize participants for finishing their summer with CARE.