To say Lourdemilla Dorsainvil has had an interesting, productive summer job is like saying Germany had an interesting, productive World Cup tournament. 

So far this year, the 17-year-old rising junior at Oakland Mills High School has, among other things, mucked out goat pens, mulched and trimmed trees, shopped for fresh produce and learned how to make smoothies. 

As a bonus, she's gained work experience and financial management skills, and earned money to buy a few things she couldn't otherwise afford — like food and transportation and clothes.

"It's a good opportunity to help me with money, and to work at many different places — like a farm," Lourdemilla said. She moved to four years ago Columbia from Haiti with her mother, and who now lives with her mother's friend because her mother is in a nursing home.

"I've never been to a farm before. ... And, we've had classes about money and banks and stuff, so it really educates you about what you don't know and what could help you in the future," she said 

Lourdemilla is one of 14 county teenagers participating in the Summer Youth Green Jobs Program, operated by the Community Action Council of Howard County.

Now in its fifth year, the federally funded program helps disadvantaged teens earn money and at the same time build skills and gain experience in an effort to break the cycle of poverty. 

"It's about alleviating poverty and helping to empower low-income families," said Davita Alston, a language teacher at Lime Kiln Middle School who directs the program.  "We want to not only put money in the household for the family, but to change the mindset, to give [participants] the skill and tools that they need to come out of what they've grown up with. … And we think it's working amazingly well."

The program runs for five weeks, and this year's ends Aug. 6. Participants, all teenagers, spend 15 hours each week at community service projects and presentations around Howard County. All have to do with job training, education, financial literacy or nutrition, Alston said.

In a more concrete way, the program provides an immediate financial boost to the students and their families: Participants earn $1,250 over the course of the five weeks.

Since the students are selected based on need, Alston said, they need the money more than most people in Howard County. Participants are either referred by the county school system's pupil personnel workers, are in the county foster care system, are unaccompanied youths (students not living with a parent or caretaker relative) or are children of Community Action Council clients — parents who use the agency's energy assistance, eviction prevention or some other service. 

Varied experiences

The community service projects are wide-ranging. One day last week, for example, students spent the morning outdoors at the Howard County Conservancy, in Woodstock. Under a hot July sun, they pushed wheelbarrows loaded with mulch to an assortment of garden plots, pruned and trimmed trees, helped care for and clean up after the animals and performed other similar tasks, all under the supervision of conservancy staffers. 

"They're fantastic," said Tabitha Fique, the conservancy's land manager, as a half-dozen students spread mulch around trees. "I thoroughly enjoy working with them."

"It's wonderful for us," Conservancy Executive Director Meg Boyd said, adding, "We get this incredible group of volunteers who come out and do all sorts of projects here. …They're serving their community, which is wonderful, they learn a lot from that. But they're also gaining job experience. It's a wonderful thing for them to put on their resumes." 

The same afternoon, the students traveled to the Miller Branch Library, in Ellicott City. There, dietitian Becky Ramsing talked to them about fresh, healthy foods before accompanying them outside to the weekly farmers market in the library's parking lot.

 At the market, students bought a fruits and vegetables, and then returned to the library room, where Ramsing taught them how to make smoothies.

 It was a new experience for many of them.  

"Is that a bug?" one student squealed to Ramsing.

"It's a bug or it's dirt, but that's where fruit comes from — from the dirt," Ramsing explained.