Summer program gives Belle Haven teens valuable life skills – and a paycheck

by Susan Erhart on August 6, 2021

Helen Fehoko can’t wait until she turns 18 at the end of this month when she will happily enlist in the Marines and head to San Diego for training for the next phase of her life.

In addition to the preparation the Belle Haven teenager has received through school and the Junior ROTC, she’s also gained valuable job and community-participation skills through the Summer Employment Program operated by One East Palo Alto.

The program is open to those ages 14-24 in Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood and in East Palo Alto, said Rev. Teirrah McNair, who is the summer program’s coordinator. The participants receive six weeks of “soft skills” training and are then placed in jobs provided by employer-sponsors. They work 14 hours each week and also receive six hours of training and mentoring from college students and adults from a variety of professions.

“We have a real village of people who are helping us to raise these young adults so that they have skills that are recession-proof,” McNair said. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

This year’s 45 participants will graduate on August 6. To meet social-distancing guidelines, McNair said a “drive-by” graduation is planned so that participants and their family members can listen and celebrate safely from their cars.

Meet the village

There are many groups that contribute to the program. While the nonprofit One East Palo Alto organization is the program’s employer of record, other organizations — including JobTrainEl Concilio of San Mateo CountyCollege TrackLive in Peace and Belle Haven Community Development Fund — provide funding and support.

This year, the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and the East Palo Art Center were recruited to help support the weekly training sessions. The sessions focused on topics such as healthy thinking, motivation, teamwork and community building.

Some of the funding agencies also provided jobs for participants. Additional employer-sponsors this year were All Five PreschoolBehavioral Health Advisory Group Advisory TeamEcumenical Hunger ProgramEast Palo Alto Community ArchiveLauren’s House 4 Positive ChangeRavenswood City School District and Sequoia Union High School District.

Learning how to reach out

This was Fehoko’s second year in the summer program. Last year, as McNair and other organizers scrambled to come up with employment opportunities for the participants amidst the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, they received funding for the students to serve as ambassadors for the U.S. Census count in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven.

“I learned why it’s so important for people to vote and to be counted in the census,” Fehoko said. “It showed me how to do outreach to the community.”

This year’s participants spent time sharing COVID-19 vaccination information with East Palo Alto residents by manning phone banks and going door to door.

For Kory Verduzco, a 17-year-old rising senior from Belle Haven, the skills he gained from canvassing neighborhoods were valuable. “Being able to communicate with strangers isn’t easy,” Verduzco said. “But you learn to go to their doors with a smile and be respectful as you talk with people.”

Alanea Mahe, 18, said she’s learned several different skills through participating in the summer program for the last two years. “You learn job etiquette and how to communicate with supervisors, and what to do – or not do – in the workplace,” she said.

Using their problem-solving skills

As one of the program’s concluding activities, the participants gathered on July 28 to use their creativity in trying to solve a larger community problem. They divided into teams to work on possible solutions to improving Wi-Fi access in East Palo Alto, protecting the community from rising sea levels and improving the community’s sidewalks.

The teams had to put together a presentation to showcase their solutions. Typically, the team presentations would be on hand during the program’s graduation ceremony, but this year the plan is to make a video of the presentations and then ask viewers to evaluate the solutions.

McNair noted that the Summer Employment Program has provided jobs for nearly 1,200 participants since it began in 2005, and has also employed 52 college students as peer mentors. The program depends on fundraising and philanthropy for its $350,000 annual budget, and McNair said she invites interested organizations to contact One East Palo Alto for information on how to support the program.

Author Susan Erhart is editor of the Belle Haven News where this post originally appeared.

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