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Disadvantaged Teens Work Toward a Better Future

December 1, 1994
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Ang Heng knows what it means to be scared. Really scared. One night this past summer, Heng, 18, was driving a friend home through an unfamiliar neighborhood in Long Beach, California. While stopped at a light, he and his friend suddenly heard "Mira, mira" ("look, look"). Heng looked out of his car window and saw a gang of youths moving toward his car. Heng remembers: "Then one of the guys came to the car with his baseball bat, and that's when I saw his big pants, you know, those baggy pants and I saw his belt hanging down, and then I know I can't go. I was in a panic. I didn't know what to do. When I looked back, my window was smashed—boom!— like that, and then he came to the side and tried to hit my friend and he broke two of my windows. Then I sped up and they tried to follow us, but luckily, I drove up to Signal Hill where one of the police stations is. Then they forgot about it and went the other way."

It was a frightening encounter. Heng can't remember ever being so terrified. Although gangs, drugs and poverty are common in his neighborhood and throughout much of the Los Angeles area, Heng usually steers clear of trouble because he has more important things on his mind. Although economically disadvantaged, Heng's dream is to become a physician. Having come to the United States from Cambodia six years ago, Heng has worked hard to learn English and to do well in school.

Because dreams aren't limited by economic status, Heng has actively pursued opportunities to improve his life. One of those opportunities was the Long Beach Summer Youth Program funded by the federally run Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). The summer youth program is a work experience and academic enrichment program for economically disadvantaged youth, 14 to 21 years old. During the eight-week program, the approximately 1,200 young people selected each year to participate in the program work at non-profit venues, including state, federal and city offices or public or community non-profit organizations.

Typically, the employers' work with the youth is finished once the summer program is complete. However, after participating with a group of 10 teens in the program for the first time in 1993, one employer—the Los Angeles County Health Department—wanted to do more for the kids. Because the teens had benefited so much from their interaction with the employees at the health department, program administrator Jack Carrel thought that the kids would benefit from the continued involvement of himself and his co-workers.

To Carrel, working with kids like these is at the heart of health education and of America's future. These kids had dreams. They needed guidance in figuring out how to make them come true. Whether these disadvantaged kids would sink or swim might very well depend on whether there were people who would reinforce that they could follow through with their dreams.

"For a lot of kids, a lot of their public health problems like violence, sexually transmitted diseases and drugs, it really comes down to people being able to have some long-term goals. I think the reason that a lot of stuff happens today is that kids don't have that. I can teach people how to use a condom or clean their needles but unless I can get people to have goals and value themselves and other people, it's pretty ineffective," says Carrel, former director of health education for the Los Angeles County Health Department's Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Program in Downey, California. "I've worked with a lot of kids, including kids just out of jail, and what I hear the most is: 'I can't go to school. I can't do this. I can't do that.' We can show people that they really do have some options."

Teens such as Ang Heng face enormous barriers to employment, including the lack of positive role models, money, job-search and job-retention skills. For some of them, English is their second language and they often are uncomfortable speaking English in front of a group. Carrel envisioned a program that would continue throughout the year and would enable the youth (most of the kids were 18 or younger) to improve their work and communications skills, build their self-esteem, clarify their life goals and have opportunities to practice employment skills that would help them get and retain good jobs. "It's our firm belief that if we're to truly impact the lives and employability of these youths we must offer ongoing support after the program, while they are actually looking for jobs," says Carrel.

Carrel also wanted to provide each teen with a mentor who would support their individual efforts in overcoming whatever barriers to continuing their education or seeking employment they might encounter. He also thought that providing opportunities to interact with peer role models who had overcome similar barriers and providing job-search and job-retention training and practice would be important to the kids' long-term development. The kids agreed.

What Carrel lacked was the money to fund such an effort. As luck would have it, Carrel's father, Jack Carrel Sr., was a human resources manager at Gaylord Container Corp. in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The elder Carrel had regularly loaned his son copies of Personnel Journal. The younger Carrel subsequently noticed in the March 1993 issue that the magazine was offering a Rebuild America Challenge Grant to organizations interested in breaking down barriers to employment such as homelessness and lack of job skills through such avenues as apprenticeships, retraining programs and investing in inner-city communities.

The younger Carrel applied for and received one of three challenge grants that Personnel Journal awarded in 1993. (See "Personnel Journal Helps Rebuild America Through Its Challenge Grant,"). Over the past year and a half, the money from the grant has given Carrel Jr.'s team the opportunity to help 17 teens improve their job skills and prepare to be active participants in America's work force.

Teens become job-ready.
After finishing the summer youth program in which the teens worked at the STD office and learned peer-education skills, most of them returned to school—either to finish high school, start college or to enroll in a technical school, such as nursing or real estate. Only one teen got a job instead. All continued to interact with the STD staff through monthly seminars that focused on becoming job-ready. For most of the kids, the employment information proved useful as they looked for after-school jobs, holiday jobs or employment after graduation.

"Not really knowing how to properly go about securing a job, the idea of having a resume, how to act in an interview, how to fill out an application and those sorts of things, were big problems for them," says Carrel Jr. To help alleviate this problem, several health educators in the STD unit taught seminars on interviewing, preparing resumes, filling out applications and conducting job searches using employment training materials provided by the elder Carrel. "We could provide them with the kind of support and information about self-esteem and those kinds of things, but we really needed some outside help on how to get them ready for jobs," explains Carrel Jr. who's now manager of the HIV counseling and testing unit for the Los Angeles County Health Department.

One training session focused on how to fill out a job application. The elder Carrel provided this advice: Be neat. Carry a pad of notepaper so that you can write out answers to the longer questions. Take your time. Carry a small pocket dictionary to ensure the correct spelling of words that you want to use. Read the form carefully all the way through before you begin to fill it out, that way you'll know which information goes where without having to guess or erase.

During a segment on interviewing skills, the teens learned about interview preparation. "I sent them information on preparing for an interview," says Carrel Sr. "If you're really interested in a particular company, then get some information about that company, so when you go in, you can impress them with the fact that you know something about the company."

The elder Carrel also provided sample interview questions and these interviewing tips: Be prepared with answers to commonly asked questions. Dress neatly. Listen to what the questions are. Don't answer before the interviewer is done asking the questions. Don't sit until the interviewer says, "Have a seat." Sit up straight. Don't be a name-dropper.

Then the kids conducted mock interviews while being videotaped. Afterwards, they reviewed themselves, paying particular attention to their posture, their eye contact and how thoroughly they answered questions. Annette Peters, an STD program health educator and training coordinator for the teen program, says that most of the kids were extremely nervous during this exercise. She says that Heng felt particularly anxious because English isn't his first language. "After we practiced, however, most of them felt a lot better about [interviewing]," says Peters.

The kids visited a local shopping mall where they practiced collecting applications. Peters says that the teens went into stores and asked about job openings. "It gave them a sense of being able to walk in somewhere cold," says Peters.

Back at the STD office, the teens learned how to conduct a job search. They looked through want ads in the newspaper and placed cold calls about job openings with a specified set of questions such as: What are the job duties? How much does the job pay? What are the hours? Peters says that having a list of questions in front of them while they made calls gave them a sense of having a system and provided a checklist to refer back to when going in for an actual interview.

After completing a workshop on resume preparation, program administrators made copies of the kids' resumes on disks so that they could continue to update them throughout the year and print out copies whenever they needed them. When some of the kids subsequently went out looking for jobs, they reported back to the group that employers were impressed with the fact that they had resumes. Most young people applying for service-type jobs just fill out an application and leave it at that. "Adding a resume really gave the application that extra oomph," says Peters.

The kids found most of the employment information useful. For example, many of the teens felt much more comfortable speaking in front of a group after completing the training. Of all the teens, Peters says that Juan Barrias improved the most. She says: "He didn't speak English very well, but he still got up [in front of the group] and really tried. I think that showed the comfort level he had for being around all of us," Peters adds. Barrias was living in a group home in Long Beach last year. Whenever there was a group activity, Peters or his mentor would pick him up, sign him out and take him along. This year Juan was moved to another home in Los Angeles and was unable to continue participating in the teen program, although Carrel and Peters stay in touch with him.

Peters explains that as a result of the encouragement he got in the program, Barrias decided to go on in school and become a mortician. Peters remembers one exercise that she did with the kids where she asked them to say where they'd live if they could live anywhere in the world. "Most of the kids said they'd like to live in places like England or study in Paris. Juan said he'd like to live in Lake Elsinore [California] where he wouldn't hear gunshots going off," she says. "It was so humbling."

Business involvement is crucial to teens' long-term success.
At-risk students often need more than their school guidance counselors or teachers can give them. What they need is the real-world perspective of adults, especially those in business.

From a human resources perspective, the elder Carrel sees great value in students having firsthand access to human resources professionals, hiring managers and people in business. "I think if business would participate with educational institutions personally by standing up in front of the classroom and talking about these three things: applying for a job, interviews and after being hired, those companies are going to get much better employees in the long run," says Carrel Sr. who was the HR manager for Gaylord for 23 years before retiring this March. "I'm not saying that students don't take seriously what a teacher says, but I do feel that they do take seriously what someone from business says on what we expect from individuals who come to us and apply for a job and what we expect when we put an individual on the payroll. I think the impact of that is just tremendous."

Each kid also had a mentor. In most cases, the mentor served as a sounding board—someone to bounce ideas off of. In some cases, the advice might have been difficult to accept, even though it was firmly based on firsthand information from the school of hard knocks. For example, Doris Simpson, a disease intervention specialist for the STD program, was a mentor to Carmen McLendon, 18. They immediately learned that they had something in common: Both had a child at a young age. McLendon had a daughter a year ago and completed her high-school education at an extension school because of her pregnancy. After graduating, McLendon attended real estate classes. Although she failed on her first attempt to pass the test, she hopes to pass on her next try.

After getting to know each other, Simpson, in a kind, but firm way, challenged McLendon to think about her career choice. Although real estate sales can be lucrative down the line, Simpson explained that it could take quite awhile before it would provide the kind of monthly stability that a young, unmarried mother would need to ensure the support of herself and her child. "I did sense that she thought about it. I was wanting her to look for something more concrete and more structured," Simpson explains. "So many people have a microwave consciousness. They want everything right now, yesterday."

Simpson knows the value of hard work and tried to convey her perspective to her protege during the mentor relationship. As a woman who married, had a child and divorced young, she took charge of her life by going back to school and pursuing a career. She recently got her master's degree and is able to support herself comfortably. "Carmen would say to me, 'You drive such a nice car.' And I would say to her, 'You can have nice things, too, but it doesn't come easy. You've got to put forth the effort,' " says Simpson.

Harlan Rotblatt, director of the Adolescent's STD/HIV Services Project for the STD Program, mentored two kids over the past year: Arturo Mata and Rang Thach. He says that he focused on helping his proteges "deal with the practical issues that come up as a direct result of the program." He says, "I tried to hone in on helping them develop their resumes, work through the possibilities of getting job experience and provided resources and contacts."

For instance, Thach didn't have much work experience, so Rotblatt helped him think about whether any of his life experiences could be translated into job-related skills on his resume. For example, he reminded Thach that his planning a presentation and presenting it to his teen group was job applicable. Rotblatt also helped Thach prepare for the SAT.

Rotblatt says that the mentoring relationship became a structured place where the kids could talk about school, work or their future plans. It was important to get the perspective of someone in the business world who had gone to college and who could relate to their hopes and dreams. Mata says that Rotblatt helped him by being able to talk about college—what freshman year was like, what to expect and what to avoid. "I don't know many people who went to college. My parents never went, so I really can't ask them," says Mata. "Besides my teachers in high school, I really didn't talk to anybody else about college."

Sometimes, the mentors gave their proteges the permission to think about career possibilities, even if they seemed somewhat far-fetched. For example, Thach had the idea of pursuing a very practical job. While he was developing a resume around that, he and his mentor realized he also was interested in a career that was a little less practical as well. "The fantasy job wasn't necessarily practical, but I felt that it was important for him to think through that," says Rotblatt. "I wanted him to realize that he could take his dream and apply the kinds of things that they were learning in this program to see if it was something he could do, and how to go about doing it in a practical way."

Teens clarify their life goals.
Program administrators were surprised by the strength of character that the kids demonstrated throughout their involvement in the teen program, despite their many obstacles. They were always on time and always called when they couldn't attend a function or come to a meeting. They also showed a lot of respect for their mentors, the health educators and each other. They raised their hands. They asked questions. They listened to each other's hopes and fears. "This was a pretty goal-oriented group of youth," says Rotblatt. "Most of the people already had ideas for themselves. The program was interesting to them because they already had a sense of being able to do stuff like this."

The administrators were surprised that the kids had such well-defined plans for their lives when they started the program. "Ang, Arturo, Tina, Eang, Robert and Hortencia all said they wanted to go on in school when they first got there," says Peters. "Most of them already had a goal in their minds, and that's what impressed me most about this group. I found that quite amazing since most of them came from backgrounds of poverty."

The kids' lives were further complicated by violence and drugs. "Almost every one of them had seen at least one person shot and dead on the ground," says Peters. Many of the kids regularly hear the sound of gunfire in their neighborhoods. Others had been approached by drug dealers at one time or another. "Some kind of way, they [managed] to rise above that," says Peters. "These kids were something special." She adds: "I will never again lump people together. [I'll never again think that] just because someone lives below the poverty line that they have lower ambitions."

Many of the kids also came from large families and faced the difficulty of studying or working on projects with lots of activity going on all around them. Because most of them grew up having family responsibilities in addition to work and school, they were comfortable doing several things at the same time. For example, Mata often babysits for his 6-month-old brother and sometimes cares for the baby and his two other brothers while his parents travel to Mexico. "In spite of all that," says Peters, "he graduated [from high school] with honors." Having scored 1,200 on his SAT (out of a possible 1,600), Mata entered college this year and plans to get a bachelor's degree in health administration. Mata works as a security guard on the weekend and goes to school during the week. He continues to live with his family. He says that having worked at the STD office is a great addition to his resume and will look good when he applies for jobs as a health administrator down the line.

Although some of the kids had a good sense of what they wanted to do when they graduated from high school, they all further honed their plans through the interaction of their mentors and their involvement in the teen program. In the process, most of them identified the need for more schooling. "There's not much you can do in this world with only a high-school education," says Carrel. Most of the kids who are going to college are seeking financial aid.

Seven of the kids from the first summer's group are now going to college. For example, Tina McCoy is both working at Target and is going to school at Long Beach City College and is studying nursing. Oscar Franco, however, got a job with the Long Beach Conservation Corps.

"All of the kids who participated in the program this year are now going to school, either returning to high school or entering college."

Five of the same kids from the first summer's group also actively participated in activities and mentoring during the second summer as well. In addition, seven new kids participated this year. All of the kids who participated in the program this year are now going to school, either returning to high school or entering college.

Their mentors helped them make contacts in the community. For instance, before applying to medical school four years from now, Heng must log in at least 500 volunteer hours at a health institution. Heng's mentor last year, Peggy Preacely, helped set him up in a volunteer spot at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. He's also volunteering at a local health center. He says that his mentor this year, Carrel, also has helped him a lot. But he says that both people must work at the relationship. "Some people don't need their mentor and it doesn't work well," says Heng. "But me, I need their help. Everything they want me to do, I do it. Your willingness to work—that's what makes your mentor want to help you."

When he first started the program, Carrel says that he thought the kids either would need help in getting a job or going back to school. "What we ended up doing is working with most of them to get into school," he says. "Sometimes the biggest issue for these kids is that they really don't know that they have options. They come from a background where they haven't had many options. That's why some changed [their minds about] what they wanted to do."

For example, Carrel says that people who advise youth usually try to steer them in certain career directions without trying to find out what their aspirations are first. As an example, he says that in the past, counselors tried to steer his protege Juan Barrias, who originally is from Guatemala and lives in the group home, into just getting his GED and then going to work as a clerk in a store. "I think a lot of people feel that kids like this have had a lot of disappointments in their lives, so they try not to make it worse," he says. What they don't realize is that it limits their choices. Carrel encouraged Barrias to stick with his idea of becoming a mortician. "We really did let the kids see what options they had and tried to expose them to things they hadn't been exposed to before," he adds.

Different viewpoints provide valuable perspective.
For such a small group, the teens represented a lot of diversity—a goal that Carrel wanted to achieve when he originally offered to take kids from the summer youth program. In all, there were eight women and nine men. And in terms of culture—six of the kids were Asian, five were African American and six were Hispanic.

The kids got along well with each other, in spite of, or maybe even because of, their different cultural backgrounds. For example, Heng (an Asian American) describes his interaction with Barrias, who had been in a Hispanic gang: "When he first came here, he acted all big and stuff, but then he was so nice to me, you know? I get along with him. If you want people to understand each other, maybe [you have to] learn about them." Heng adds: "It's tough. I think it's not going to stop, this [racial] problem. I think you just have to live through it."

Various field trips helped the kids to see the world from different perspectives. For example, they visited the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles. While there, the kids learned about victims of the Holocaust and about various other cultural groups who face discrimination. "I think they learned that we're all people and that we all need to be treated as human beings," says Peters. They all talked about the experience afterwards. The kids agreed that one of the most powerful encounters was being in a room where they could push buttons and hear people shouting various racial slurs at them—it was an experience not unlike some that they had experienced in their own lives. "They learned that we all have to be conscious of everyday things, what we say, what we do and how we treat people," adds Peters.

The kids also went on a field trip to a local Renaissance Faire, which is a tribute to medieval life held annually in Southern California. Afterwards, the group talked about what it would have been like to live during that time. Another outing involved going to a local bookstore to view a photo exhibit by some teens depicting life in their Los Angeles neighborhood, which is heavily affected by gang activity. The photos showed the more positive aspects of life in the community.

An important part of the program involved having positive peer role models speak to the teens so that they could learn how to overcome barriers encountered by youth like themselves and act as reinforcement that it's possible to set a goal and achieve it. Probably the most memorable event for the kids was a visit from one of the stars of a recent movie called "Mi Vida Loca," a film that told about the lives of female gang members. The kids had gone out to see the movie as a group one night, then the next evening, actress Seidy Lopez—a young woman in her early 20s—came to talk with the kids. She talked about coming to the United States from Mexico as a child, how she wanted to be a movie star and how she struggled to finish school and then finally got her big break in this movie. During her visit, each of the kids talked about their goals. She encouraged all of them to value their education.

She knows what it means to believe in herself when few others did. Through this teen program, disadvantaged kids were inspired to reach into themselves and find the place where strength and courage lies, with the help of some people who cared about their development. Like flowers growing through cracks in a sidewalk, these kids emerged from desolate neighborhoods with the dreams of a better life and the power to make them come true.

Personnel Journal, December 1994, Vol. 73, No. 12, pp. 34-43.

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