The bright day care room filled with toys and lined with colorful jigsaw puzzle play mats looked like such a happy space, except for all the crying 2-year-olds.
It was Alexus Hart’s first week on the job at the Latter House Childcare Center, and she had to think fast. She took some of the kids outside to burn off some energy while her older colleagues tried to calm the rest of the children. Everything was calm after a bit of outdoor playtime and a snack of graham crackers. But nap time brought another round of chaos.
At 15, this was Hart’s first job, which she got through the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department’s Career Awareness and Related Experience program, or CARE, in 2013. She put the skills she acquired there to work in a job on her own the next year and returned to CARE as a job coach this past summer.
Despite CARE’s success and popularity, the program’s fate has been the subject of debate as the Columbia City Council works with City Manager John Glascock to craft a budget for fiscal 2020. With sales tax revenue on the decline and a commitment to spend significantly to improve city employees’ salaries across the board, Glascock’s initial budget proposed spending on CARE be cut by $111,000.
That would have eliminated money for 71 trainees and several job coaches. The City Council, however, restored $48,000 to the CARE budget at its Sept. 3 meeting by shifting some of the burden to the Water & Light Department, which is now charged with employing those 30 trainees.
Meanwhile, Columbia Public Schools is offering another $50,000 to save the program, which it says is a huge benefit to its students.
“We have to recognize as a community that — and I think our City Council does — that social capital shouldn’t be reserved for just one group of people,” school district Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said. “And so, the CARE program is super important.”
A road to helping
CARE provides at-risk youths between 14 and 20 years old with hands-on mentoring, work experience and job readiness training by putting them to work at local businesses during the summer. Parks and Recreation pays entirely for the trainees to work 20 hours a week at minimum wage for eight weeks.
The program has been a godsend to Hart and her family.
Hart lived with her grandparents during her early elementary school years but moved to Paris, Missouri, at age 9 to be with her mom. She attended Faith Walk Academy, a small Christian school. She struggled at first. With just one classmate in her grade, it was in stark contrast to her life in Columbia.
“When I first went there, I had a rough patch, but it didn’t last very long once the students got to know me,” Hart said. “They realized I was very nice, and different, but still nice.”
Hart returned to Columbia for the summer before freshman year of high school, and her family encouraged her to apply to CARE.
“My uncle did it, and then it trickled on down from there. It went from my uncle, then my cousin, and then me, and then my sister,” Hart said. “My uncle started it basically because my grandma forced him.”
That’s the summer where Hart gained experience at the Latter House Childcare Center. She returned to CARE as a sophomore in college when she learned it needed more job coaches.
“All I could think was: Could I really be a job coach?” Hart said.
Job coaches in the program are like mediators, communicating with both the trainees and the on-site mentors at the businesses.
After a nerve-wracking interview, Hart got the job and was put in charge of 18 trainees. She quickly became not only a mediator but also a friend and tutor to them. When she learned that one of her charges was struggling with math, for example, she devoted several hours to tutoring her. Hart is studying secondary math education at Columbia College.
“We’d go to the library and I’d set everything up and just study,” Hart said.
At the end of the summer, Hart sent letters to trainees’ parents thanking them for their patience. They responded with glowing praise for her professionalism.
Tough to sustain The number of applicants to CARE has grown steadily since it began in 1982. This past summer, 185 trainees were selected from 567 applications.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Griggs at an Aug. 26 budget work session explained that the proposed $111,000 cut would eliminate the CARE Art Gallery Program, which includes a part-time coordinator and 15 trainees, along with 56 other CARE trainee positions and 5.5 job coaches.
Griggs said he was reluctant to cut CARE but couldn’t find anywhere else in his department to save money.
“As a lifelong Columbia resident, I know the importance of CARE,” Griggs said. “These budget cuts were seriously considered throughout the whole process.”
Griggs later offered some alternative cuts, such as eliminating an equipment operator, cutting two weeks from the spray-park season and eliminating emergency phones in parks and along trails. Council members didn’t like those proposals when they came up during a Sept. 3 budget discussion. Mayor Brian Treece said he was most concerned about cutting the emergency phones.
“I think people rely on those,” he said.
It was Treece who proposed having Water & Light employ at least 30 trainees and 1.5 job coaches, who would still be managed by Parks and Recreation.
Assistant Utilities Director Ryan Williams said the department would be happy to take on the trainees, but “I don’t know what they may be eligible for, though,” he said.
“It depends on the skill level,” Williams said. “Some of the jobs are a bit more dangerous.”
A helping hand
As the CARE cuts continued to be discussed, the Columbia School Board took notice. Board Vice President Jonathan Sessions said the program primarily benefits the school district’s students.
“And here is this entity that’s struggling financially that has a really great program that’s designed around our kids,” he said.
Stiepleman said the district plans to provide about $50,000 for CARE using summer school revenue. Stiepleman said CARE should be accessible to everyone.
“It really fits within our mission,” Sessions said, “so if there’s a way that we can integrate it and pull it in with a big hug into our institution or bring it under our umbrella, or whatever you want to call it, then that’s absolutely, I think, the right move that we could make — the right way for Columbia Public Schools to stand up.”
The school district also plans to form a partnership with the Columbia Police Department to create law enforcement internships. Similar to COMO Ed, the program would allow students interested in law enforcement to gain early training and experience, while encouraging them to pursue careers in Columbia.
“We feel like we really have a boiler plate plan that engages our kids in pathways to stay here locally, raise their families here and be in those important positions,” Stiepleman said.
Stiepleman said Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones is a prime example of someone who grew up in Columbia and now works for the city.
“He grew up here and knows the community,” Stiepleman said. “And so that should absolutely be a model for a community like Columbia.”
Stiepleman said this idea stemmed from consistent job vacancies at the Police Department. “We are so pleased to be a partner with Chief Jones, who is wanting to reestablish a pipeline of locally educated kids who become police officers or first responders.”
Hope for the future
CARE holds a banquet at the end of every summer to honor its trainees. A job coach is asked to speak to the standing-room-only gathering.
The speech lasted all of two minutes, but Hart said she prepared for two days.
“It’s not always what you know, but who,” Hart told her audience. ... “If someone knows you as a hard worker and that you’re responsible and respectful, then (it’s) more likely that who you know is going to affect you in the long term in a good way.”
As the CARE application season approaches this fall, another one of Hart’s cousins is planning to sign up. Her chances of being accepted are far better, given the City Council and the school district’s support.
School board member Blake Willoughby said he’s happy to help CARE.
“It’s our way of contributing and making sure our kids have this access, and showing not only the city and our citizens but also the partners of this program that the school district does care and does see the hard work that they are all doing.”
Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Kathy Kiely.