Connecting the disconnected

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thanks to funds of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more than 50 Freeborn County young adults this summer have been able to learn the ins and outs of career exploration, develop positive work habits and find employment through September.

Through the Summer Work Experience program, which is funded through the Youth Recovery Act — a portion of the larger recovery program — the youth were first required to complete 10 days of classroom time, including how to look for a job and what to do when applying for one. Then they began their hands-on work experience, where they have spent the majority of the summer.

The goal is to develop an opportunity for disconnected youth to reconnect through multiple pathways to education and training opportunities necessary to enter and advance in the workforce, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

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Initial local programming started mid-April and will continue through Sept. 30.

Theresa Spiering, youth counselor with Workforce Development Inc., which has overseen the program locally, said the funds received this year more than doubled their usual budget for the youth program for the year.

More than $1 million was allotted to the 10-county service area, of which Freeborn County is a part.

To be in the program, the youth have to be between 16 and 24 years old, be income-eligible and have a barrier to employment. Some barriers include having an independent education plan, being a high school dropout, just coming out of chemical dependency, being a single parent, or having a conviction, Spiering said.

The youth had to apply to be in the program.

She said to spread word of the program, Workforce Development advertised the program on the Minnesota Works job site and put an ad in the Freeborn County Shopper. They also went to the schools and talked with probation officers.

It was mostly spread by word of mouth from that point on, Spiering said.

The youth selected to participate have had work time at places such as Myre-Big Island State Park, the Freeborn County Fairgrounds, city parks, schools, child care centers, museums, the Albert Lea Animal Shelter, Great Grains Market & Cafe, Albert Lea High School, City Arena, at various locations in Alden and Glenville, and at some area churches.

“It’s been a great summer,” Spiering said. “It’s been a great program, and I think it’s doing what it was designed to do.”

For an organization to be eligible for work through the program, the work has to be a nonprofit job, or in other words, it is what most agencies don’t usually have the ability to pay for or the time to do on their own, Spiering said.

The youth can work up to eight full hours a day, either all at one time or in split shifts. They get paid minimum wage.

“I think the ones who’ve benefited the most are the older ones — they’re really grateful for it,” she said.

She noted the unemployment for this age group in Freeborn County is over 30 percent. This program aims to help curb that number.

While the experience provides the youth money to live on, it also gives many of them their first work experience.

Out at Myre-Big Island State Park on Tuesday, several youth were working to clear overhanging limbs from trails and pathways.

One of those youth, Sesley Stout, 21, of Albert Lea, said the program has given her the opportunity to work in different places and with different companies. She hopes this experience will help her down the road when applying for other jobs.

Stout said she was grateful to have the job this summer, as the economy is not at its best.

“I hope it happens again next summer,” she said.

She noted she plans to attend Riverland Community College this fall for medical administration.

Another youth, Elisabeth Rice, 20, of Geneva, said the program has helped her learn how to write a resume and create connections with jobs.

“It keeps me busy and staying out of trouble,” she said.

She noted she found out about the program through a weekly check-in at the Freeborn County Government Center.

She hopes to move to Albert Lea and is taking classes through the University of Phoenix in criminal justice and law enforcement.

The work experience has also given the youth the opportunity to make new friendships.