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Youth Opportunity program helps young adults, many struggling with big challenges

Marvin McKenstry Jr. helped a roomful of young people navigate a byzantine online job application, but his most important advice came as everyone got up to go.

To a few young men, he shared more details about a construction site they'd be helping at the next morning. He reminded another youth about a job-shadowing assignment. He explained what they all should wear, when to show up — and why this mattered. They need a proverbial foot in the door of an economy that's doing them no favors.

"You may be creating an opportunity for yourself," he said.

This is one way Baltimore's Youth Opportunity program, which employs McKenstry as a job developer, helps young adults find work. It's a hands-on, multipronged effort, because so many of the teenagers and people in their 20s who come for assistance face major challenges.

Three-quarters of them left high school without finishing. A quarter have children. Some have criminal records, some are in foster care, some are homeless.

Even for young adults without such difficulties, it's tough to land a job these days.

"Six years ago, they could get an entry-level job pretty easily," said Kerry Owings, manager of the Youth Opportunity center in West Baltimore. "But the way the economy is now, they're competing with people who've been laid off, who have a proven track record of showing up to work. … So what we're finding is we have to do a lot more to prepare young people."

The program, for ages 16 to 24, started locally in 2000 with a federal grant. The U.S. Department of Labor launched Youth Opportunity efforts in three dozen communities struggling with poverty and high rates of jobless youth at a time when most of the country enjoyed low unemployment.

Baltimore's grant has long since run out. The city funds the program now for about $2.8 million a year, one of the few places that's kept Youth Opportunity going.

The scale of Baltimore's effort is smaller in some ways and the economic picture far different than it was 14 years ago. But the young adults keep coming, and the staffers keep plugging away. Since July 2011, 1,476 people received services.

Of those, about 225 enrolled in job-skills training, according to the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, which runs the program. Just over 110 earned a high school diploma by passing the equivalency exam or finishing classes they lacked. And 545 — more than a third — were placed in jobs or found work after getting help.

That success may make the Baltimore program more effective than the earlier federal effort.

A 2007 analysis of the program for the Department of Labor, which looked at 30 of the sites during the federal funding period, found that staffers placed 22 percent of participants in jobs. (What wasn't noted is whether that figure includes those who found work on their own.)

Decision Information Resources, a Texas research and evaluation firm that wrote the report, concluded that Youth Opportunity "appeared to have had a significantly positive effect on reducing the number of out-of-school and out of work (disconnected) youths."

Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said the federal effort tried to change economically depressed communities — which might not work if you're giving young people options so they can move out.

He was glad to hear Baltimore kept its program going and opened it to all young adults in the city. Well-targeted direct services might not change entire neighborhoods, he said, "but if you were to measure them in the impact on someone's life, they're forever valuable."

The strategy practiced by Baltimore's program is offering help in a variety of ways. Case managers work with participants on complex life problems, like finding housing in a pinch. Staffers distribute nonperishable groceries brought in by the Maryland Food Bank to help those who don't have enough at home.

But the primary goals at the program's two centers — in the impoverished neighborhoods of Broadway East and Sandtown-Winchester — are to raise participants' educational levels and help them land jobs.

One option for participants is YouthBuild, a construction skills training program. Civic Works handles the off-site work on home rehabilitation projects and controlled demolitions, while Youth Opportunity staff get the young adults up to speed academically.

At the West Baltimore center, where the walls are painted bright colors and the street outside is studded with boarded-up rowhouses, nine YouthBuild students worked on fractions in a recent class. The word at the top of a vocabulary list hanging nearby: "Optimism."

Diamonte Brown, the literacy instructor for YouthBuild, unwrapped a multiplication-chart poster to give the class a way to visualize common denominators. Take four and six, she said.

"This is where they meet up," she said, pointing. "Twenty-four."

Brown went over her students' worksheets, asking them to call out answers, explaining the trickier problems.

"Anybody lost yet?" she asked.

Talayia Bowen, 20, was not lost. She has a game plan beyond fractions: Finish YouthBuild, get work in carpentry, put herself through college, become an engineer.

"I plan on putting my all into this," she said.

She feels that her life is getting on track after rough times. She left high school in ninth grade after a traumatic experience with people she couldn't avoid seeing on the way to class. Later, she said, she spent two years in a homeless shelter.

She had to learn a lot on her own, the hard way. Now, she said, she has Youth Opportunity staff to rely on.

"The advice that they give us … does help out a lot," she said. "Nine times out of 10, it's a better route than a 20-year-old would take on their own."

Marcus Nole, 25, went to the east-side center nearly seven years ago with fewer challenges to surmount — he'd finished high school and lived with his family. But he needed assistance all the same.

He'd tried a year of community college, and the experience wasn't great. Then he tried to get a job and ran into the no-experience Catch-22.

His father heard about Youth Opportunity and told him to go. Since then, every job Nole landed has either been through a direct connection made by staff there or the ripple effect of the network he developed as a result.

"If I didn't come to Youth Opportunity, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to start a foundation for myself," said Nole, now a research program assistant at the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health.

Back at the west-side Youth Opportunity center, McKenstry gave his charges a parting reminder about punctuality the next day: "Eight o'clock, eight o'clock, eight o'clock."

He's always looking to point young adults toward a way in. If it's not a regular job, then a job-shadowing experience or — on occasion — a "tryout employment" deal: The employer takes a participant on, Youth Opportunity pays the wage for a short period, and if everyone's happy, the tryout turns permanent.

Owings, who runs the center, said employees there have to love their work. Otherwise, she said, "you can get burned out."

What drives McKenstry isn't simply professional satisfaction. It's a personal calling. He said he dropped out of high school at 15, got involved in the drug trade and spent time in jail.

He's grateful for the second chance he got when he decided he'd had enough.

"I want to be able to offer the same thing to other people," he said. "Everybody can change — you just need the opportunity to see something different."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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