At the café in the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, young people, ages 16 to 24, spend the summer cooking, baking and welcoming customers. Down the street and around the corner, they're helping out in a recording studio or at the shoe repair shop.
They're being connected to jobs through Hudson River Housing's LEAP (learning through experience and partnership) program. The program places 24 youth per year from Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County and matches them with small, locally owned Main Street businesses.
"It helped me learn that this is truly my calling, to entertain and build as a leader," says Miguel Angel Sanchez Jr., 17. Sanchez participated in the LEAP program the summer of 2019, working at Tim McQueen's Rec Room recording studio. Before that, he says, his experience was as president of Poughkeepsie High School's performing arts club, as a dishwasher and as a self-employed DJ.
For the most part, he says, working in the studio was "about helping out whenever any artist needed assistance as well as learning how to be an audio engineer recording for local artists." With McQueen's help, he says, "I was able to build the mentality to be a leader and have the mindset of a boss."
He says someday he'd like to go back and learn even more, "and be a part of the bigger picture on building the community as well as finding my own voice in the music industry."
The mentorship program, now in its fourth year and funded through the help of a grant from Dutchess County, pays youth $11.80 per hour for their work and for the resume building, interview prep and financial fitness training that goes with it, says Lydia Hatfield, program coordinator for Hudson River Housing (HRH). "We want them to know their time is valuable," she says. "We wish it were more." The program started with the community desire to provide more opportunities for youth as well as the need to stabilize the neighborhood's small business community, which Lindsay Duvall, manager of advocacy and community engagement, calls "one of our greatest assets." As they were planning, HRH made a peer-learning visit to see Madison Park Development Corp's youth employment program in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
HRH usually gets 70 to 90 applicants for two dozen spaces. Hatfield says the workers she chooses are often the inverse of what you'd expect. She targets people who need experience and who sometimes have more obstacles than credentials.
The skills they need
"The program is meant to be a win-win between young people and the businesses that host them," Hatfield says. Businesses get free labor in exchange for providing youth with time and attention as a mentor-boss. "These folks that host the youth tend to really care about the community and want to introduce young people to more workforce fields."
McQueen began working with the program two years ago. He was on a committee where he'd been discussing interns, when someone at HRH, where he was a consultant, suggested using kids from the LEAP program. McQueen, whose work has always focused on kids (he also manages and produces a kid-comprised band called Ill Harmonic and teaches afterschool programs), thought it was the right fit. He and his staff taught "the LEAPS" everything from secretarial skills to mixing sound. "We taught them a lot of behind the scenes studio stuff," he says. "I think what happened with some of these kids, they found out they had skills that they didn't know they had. They found out they had interests they didn't know they had."
He points to one student who had been thinking about nursing when she began helping McQueen with a campaign for a "complementary currency," a currency that is used to supplement national currency, often with a social goal — encouraging local spending, for instance. He still gets excited when he thinks of her face when she realized that her ideas were going to be used. "She said, 'I don't have to focus on just one thing in life. I can do so much more.'"
McQueen tells the students that the money they're making through the LEAP program is a bonus. "I tell them, 'What you should really be taking away is the knowledge,'" he says.
Emily Horta, owner of Emy D's Desserts, with youth LEAP participant, Daniel Thomas.
Madeline Henriquez is another LEAP mentor. She co-founded Earth, Wind & Fuego, a food-based social enterprise, with her partner Jen Herman in 2017 after they'd both worked for years in nonprofits. They decided to create a for-profit business with a mission that aligns with their nonprofit spirit, searching for sustainable solutions to poverty through inclusive training and employment opportunities.
After their first batch of LEAP students graduated, they hired a few of them at the café, known for its gluten-free carrot muffins, infused waters and caldo de tomate (their take on tomato soup. Other graduates of the LEAP program still come by the restaurant to say hello, to charge their phones and to catch up.
Henriquez says they employ a fresh batch of workers through the program each year, in the dining room and in the kitchen. She likes hearing the kids who initially say they don't want to work with people opening up and pitching in with customers. Their vocabularies change, she says. So do their dreams, like the young woman who now wants to be a graphic artist.
As mentors, Henriquez says they try to steer the youth toward other helpful programs, like Wheels to Work, which helps parents find cars, and Dress for Success, which finds them clothes for job interviews. "We help with resumes, interview coaching and skill building," she says.
Not everyone hires through an equity lens, she says, and what she wants employers to remember is that "these aren't numbers; these are people's lives. We get to see them shining in a very different capacity."
Hatfield says her favorite part as coordinator is watching the relationships grow between mentors and mentees. Also rewarding: watching the people being mentored become more comfortable with their jobs. She says her own relationship with the youth being mentored is also important. Over the past year, she's learned that maintaining a good connection with the young workers is key. "Regularly checking in, making sure they know they're not in this alone and that they're comfortable asking questions — that's really important," she says.
Henriquez says she'd like to see more workshops to ensure that everyone who comes through the LEAP program comes through with lessons on emotional intelligence, financial safety, and healthy personal and professional relationships. And she says she'd like to see more programs like LEAP.
"It's an amazing program," she says. "And it's necessary. A lot of folks we've hosted, this is their first job ever. There are lots of odds against them. To have so many businesses be able to host young folks and give firsthand experience of what it's like to earn a living in your own community is a beautiful thing."
Hatfield says organizations setting up similar programs should remember the following:
- Youth development can benefit other important stakeholders, like the small business community, "It's those relationships that will grow the social and intergenerational connectedness of youth and make that development work sustainable and worthwhile."
- The youth will be starting from completely different places when it comes to employment readiness, so a good program is prepared to be flexible and meet the needs of those youth. It takes more administrative work, but the harder-to-measure follow-up work and the relationship-building work is meaningful and shouldn't be brushed to the wayside just because it's difficult to report to funders, she says.
- Be organized. Make a detailed map of what needs to happen, by whom and when. Make a (flexible) evaluation plan for the program before the program is rolling.
Banner photo credit: S Hemmerle