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.
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.
Ramsing said the students "are a lot of fun. They're very engaging and they're interested, and they make it fun. … They like learning."
Besides learning how to shop and prepare healthy foods, she said, the students — with luck — learn the importance of nutritious foods.
"Ultimately, we hope this will improve their nutrition," she said. "But in a fun, creative way."
The students seemed to find the projects enjoyable as well, "fun" being the word most often used to describe their summer jobs. They cite more lasting benefits as well.
"You get a lot of experience," Lourdemilla said. "It's a really good opportunity."
Nyla Green, 16, of Ellicott City, said working closely with the other students may help her in her dream of becoming a prosecuting attorney.
"This helps me be able to talk to people and communicate," she said. "Coming into this program, I knew what I wanted to be, but I didn't know how I wanted to get there. Now, I have a better idea. Miss Alston in particular explained that I should start thinking about this now."
Josh Archer, 18, is spending his second summer in the program and said it already has paid off. The 2014 graduate of Oakland Mills High School is enrolled at Howard Community College this fall, majoring in graphic design. He plans to become either a graphic designer or an elementary school art teacher.
The Green Jobs program made him realize how much he enjoyed helping people, he said, and also gave him valuable communication skills.
"I learned how to communicate with people to get the job done efficiently and quickly," he said. "Dealing and communicating with people of different ages and groups is a skill that would be really helpful as a teacher."
Alston has other success stories. A student during a previous summer, she said, was an unaccompanied youth with little direction and few hopes. Now she is attending Towson University on a dance scholarship.
"The program helped her realize that even though she has these situations in her life, she can rise above, she can still get an education," Alston said. "It's not going to be easy for her, but the mere fact we gave her some drive, some gumption, some will to go for it — that's important."
A boy from this year's group, Alston said, told her during his initial interview he had no skills and no idea what he wanted from the program. More recently, he told her he was thinking of a job in air conditioning and heating.
"This was a child who said 'I have no skills, I don't know what I would do, I don't know why you would hire me,' " Alston said. "Just the mere thought that he's starting to channel his thoughts in the direction of, 'Here's what I'm going to do, how I'm going to support myself and my family' — that's tremendous."
The program is not without headaches and glitches. The final report on last summer's program listed a number of "problems encountered," including the challenge of finding projects that could accommodate so many workers at once, and the challenge of scheduling projects during the summer months, when many work sites have limited staff and vacationing employees. The limits made long-range planning "difficult and sometimes impossible," the report noted.
Also, one student last year dropped out, according to the report, and could not be contacted. Organizers concluded he needed a different jobs program, and his case was referred to his social worker.
Still, organizers are pleased enough with the program to want to expand it.
Community Action Council President Bita Dayhoff said the program has grown since its start five years ago — grant funding through the Community Services Block Grant program has doubled to $30,000, allowing the county to accept more teenagers — and the council is looking for funding for the future.
"This year we had more than 45 applicants, so the opportunity and the need have definitely been demonstrated," Dayhoff said.
"We've seen the importance of the program, not only for the students but also for their families," she added. "This is having a tremendous impact on families."