Summer Job Programs Build Character & Confidence

August 24, 2011

For the last few summers, Community Foundation donors have approached us about how to help youth find summer work. Their interest was motivated by a simple belief that summer employment can accomplish a number of good things: for some, it is an opportunity to gain learning opportunities, confidence, and a set of new skills. For others, especially those in low-income families, it is to make and save much-needed dollars.

Unfortunately the recent economic downturn has exacerbated an ongoing decline in summer employment. According to Current Population Survey, the teen employment rate dropped steadily from 51.7 percent in 2000 to 32.9 percent in 2009, a decline apparent across all demographic groups. This decline has largely been a result of adult workers seeking employment with employers that traditionally hired teens during the summer.

In the face of these declines, the donors tasked CFNJ with identifying promising summer job programs in areas of the state that they care about. The Foundation staff researched nonprofit and program options that would provide not only a job but the support services, e.g., mentoring and job skills, which would make the most of the experience for the teenagers. The research led donors to recommend grants through their donor advised funds to offer summer employment. So far, the effort has paid off.

According to Deborah Berry-Toon, Executive Director of Project Self-Sufficiency of Sussex County, donors’ grants to the Summer Youth Employment Program, “[are] literally transforming lives.” The program, which was originally designed to support the work of 12 young people from low-income families, was instead able to support 24 individuals who held jobs at local daycare facilities, summer camps, and even the local County college.

According to Berry-Toon, the young people “are gaining opportunities, encouragement, and positive role models they might never have had access to otherwise. It is hard to imagine or estimate the impact this experience will have on their futures.”

Project Self-Sufficiency receives grants with dollars dedicated to everything from providing transportation to and from the jobs to basic workplace education, such as how to maintain a schedule, how to present oneself professionally, and how to take ownership of problems.

One young person in the program described his work at Sussex County Community College, saying “I have learned responsibility [and] organization … and to be punctual, respectful and kind, and to prepare the night before for work.”

Another said, “Since I worked at [the] office, I’ve matured in so many areas … I really enjoy working [with my colleagues] … it’s like when we all [come] together we are a big family.”

Another donor advised fund is supporting the work of six nonprofits that have summer job programs, including the Great Falls Youth Corps in Paterson. As part of the Youth Corps, young people take part in beautification projects around the National Historic Park. They also serve as unofficial ambassadors to the community, encouraging Paterson residents to visit the park and enjoy its peace and tranquility.

Another nonprofit supported by the fund is City Green, a Passaic County-based organization that empowers inner city residents to establish urban farms and gardens that promote “livable, green, sustainable urban communities.” Specifically, the grant supported six high school interns who grew organic produce at a farm in Clifton and delivered it to two senior citizen nutrition programs in Paterson.

“The students participate enthusiastically in their farm work, their weekly youth development workshops and especially in the farm markets,” said Jennifer Papa, City Green’s Executive Director. “They are so pleased to not only have paid employment for the summer, but for the opportunity to make change in their communities.”

Now, as many of these summer jobs begin to wind down, the young workers will return to school having earned much-needed dollars, learned new skills, and gained greater confidence. Thanks to donors’ wishes to address a unique yet acute problem — young people who need the dollars and skills of a summer job, but don’t have the opportunity — more of New Jersey’s young people will have a brighter future. A summer job may not turn every young person’s life around, but it will provide them with direction and financial support at a critical time in their young lives — and for some, that is just the boost they need.