Last week, an assistant in the Mayor's Office was having problems getting a printer to do a two-sided copying job. She went to the city's Information Technology Department for assistance and Billy Zeilah volunteered to try and fix the problem.
"The printer was old and wasn't equipped to do two-sided copying. So, I showed her how to flip the paper, put it back in the slot, and it worked," said Billy who has worked on more complicated problems in the city's IT department in recent weeks. "I helped reinstall the hard drive on one computer, and helped put in a new power supply and two CD drives on another."
Although he has extensive computer skills, Billy is not a full-time IT employee, he is a 15-year-old student at St. Vincent Pallotti High School, who wants to one day design computer programs. He is one of 10 interns working in various city departments as part of the Mayor's Summer Jobs Program.
This is the third year the city has hired Laurel youths, ages 14 to 16, to work for eight weeks in city offices during the summer. The students put in up to 20 hours each week; and, in addition to being paid $7.25 an hour, learn how local government works through hands-on experience.
"I didn't want a program where the students sit around, but they're talking to residents by answering the phones and working on projects that I hope we'll be able to use," said Mayor Craig Moe, who won a Maryland Municipal League Achievement Award this year for the program. His intern is working on a brochure regarding the city's Parks and Recreation facilities.
This year, 30 students applied for the jobs program, which runs from June 27 through Aug. 19. Because of budgetary constraints, only 10 were hired, four fewer than in previous years. Billy said he was excited when he learned he was selected for the program because it was an opportunity to work with information technology professionals on something he enjoys.
"I love building, fixing and programming computers. I have several computers of my own that I work on, and I fix computers for my family and friends," said Billy, who also helps department officials input information on a computerized system that tracks all IT equipment purchases.
He added, "My family moved here from Lebanon five years ago, and although I really miss it and plan to live there someday, I don't think I would have had an opportunity like this in Lebanon."
Those interns interviewed all said they see the intern program as providing them with opportunities they might not have otherwise had because of their age and lack of previous job experience.
Ebony Marcus, a junior at Laurel High School, fits into that category. She landed her first job in the City Council's offices, where in addition to answering the telephone and helping to organize council members' mail, she scans old ordinances and council-meeting minutes from the 1950s to laser fiche.
"I like doing the computer scanning, and I've been reading through some of the documents as I scan them and have found out things I didn't know," Marcus said. "I saw that my high school had to ask for permission to have homecoming parades, and I was surprised to see that."
Deputy City Clerk Pat Haag, Marcus' supervisor, is impressed with the work she has done this summer and said the project she's working on will benefit the city and residents.
"Putting this information on a laser fiche storage system will speed up the process when we need to look up old documents," Haag said. "Also, if someone requests an old ordinance, with it being in electronic form, I can email it out. So, this is a very important project."
Many of the interns are working on time-consuming projects that full-time city employees have not been able to tackle because of their busy schedules. For example, 16-year-old Folayinka Oyeneyin helped Budget Department officials scan and organize documents in the division's Archive Room.
"I enjoyed putting things in alphabetical order and by dates in the archives room," said Oyeneyin, who — like many of the interns — had no prior knowledge of Laurel's Municipal Center offices or their inner workings. "I didn't know anything about this place or that it existed. I thought the building would be smaller, so I was impressed when we took a tour here. I like what I've learned and feel that I've been challenged."
For 14-year-old Imani Hughes, who works in the City Administrator's Office answering calls, handling handicapped parking permits and doing a research project, the internship is a chance for her to learn more about local government and choose a career path.
"With my research project, I'm trying to find out which elected officials and candidates who ran for mayor and City Council were related," Imani said. "I love history and am enjoying reading everything. I'm looking to do something in government, so all of this will help me decide what I want to do as an adult."
City Administrator Kristie Mills commended Imani on her work, and said, "She dresses professionally, deals well with the general public, asks questions and is just top notch. She's progressed to the point that we feel comfortable leaving her here when we go to lunch."
Some of the interns work in city offices outside the Municipal Center, such as 16-year-old Sankofa Ray, who works at the Police Department filing and helping to process speed and red light camera tickets. Ray, a basketball, volleyball and softball player at Laurel High, was pleased about her assignment because she wants to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Last week, Ray was looking forward to an evening ride-along with an officer. Her first ride-along occurred during the day and was not what she expected.
"There was not a lot going on, so it was kind of boring, with a couple of traffic stops — one person wasn't wearing a seat belt and a lady made a left turn from the right lane — so I hope the evening shift will be more exciting," Ray said, adding that her stint on the reception desk was, at times, a bit edgier. "I never felt intimidated, but some people didn't understand they couldn't pay their tickets here, and got loud and frustrated at times. I'd just call an officer or someone, and they'd escort them out."
In addition to exposing the summer interns to the inner workings of local government, because the positions are the first paid jobs for most of the students, they're also learning about responsible money management. Some, who live in single-parent households, said they are helping their families with bills and other expenses.
"My mom wants me to be more independent, and she's teaching me finance rules by making me buy everything I need for school. So, I'm learning to spend and save," Marcus said.
The mayor hopes all of the interns will learn something from their experience in the program, which will help them to achieve their long-term aspirations.
"The program has maintained its goal of preparing young adults for job interviews, teaching them how to dress and office professionalism. It's a productive way for the students to spend their summer," Moe said. "I hope the city will continue to fund it and we can get local businesses to sponsor students so more can participate."