Getting to know some of the people participating in and running the Baltimore YouthWorks Program. (Algerina Perna, Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
Na'Thaia Huntley wanted nothing more than a job after graduating from Dunbar High School in 2014 but, with no experience, her options were limited.
She'd applied for a job through YouthWorks — a city program that offers summer employment for thousands of young people each year — and was invited to join a job training session for the program's private sector initiative, Hire One Youth. After completing the training, she earned an internship with Rosedale Federal Bank.
It proved to be the helping hand she needed. One year and another internship later, the 20-year-old has landed a full-time job as a teller at the Harbor Bank of Maryland.
"For me to get a bank job with no experience, do you know how awesome that is?" Huntley said.
City officials wish every YouthWorks story could end like Huntley's, said Brice Freeman, communications director for the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.
This year, the city received more than $10 million in funding for the program from a mix of government and private sources, and was able to offer jobs to a record 8,300 people ages 14 to 21 in Baltimore. More than 10,000 youths applied for work.
Those accepted are dispersed across more than 900 workplaces in the region. Many work for the city or nonprofit agencies, but others get a chance to experience private sector fields such as health care, finance and energy, among others.
Participants are paid at least minimum wage and work in one of two five-week cycles, the first of which started June 26. The second begins Monday.
Despite inconsistencies in its funding, YouthWorks typically employed about 5,000 people each summer since its inception in the mid-1990s, Freeman said. But that number jumped after the rioting that followed Freddie Gray's death sparked more interest among businesses. The program served about 8,000 the past two summers.
The city established Hire One Youth in 2012 to bolster involvement by private-sector businesses, Freeman said.
Those invited to join Hire One Youth are slightly older than other YouthWorks participants — they must be at least 16 — and are matched to jobs according to their interests. Candidates are required to complete six hours of job-readiness training and interview for their summer positions.
Developing a young workforce in the city through such programs is essential for businesses in Baltimore, especially as the older generation of workers begins to retire, Freeman said.
Participating companies and organizations this year include the Johns Hopkins University, MedStar Health, Martin's Caterers and Veolia North America, Freeman said.
Pam Clark, senior project manager at Veolia's energy division, said YouthWorks gives young people much-needed insight into different career options.
"By being involved in this program, it helps expose youth to a field they may not realize exists," Clark said. "Not a lot of youth are aware of the opportunities that are available in water, waste and energy."
Richard Clinch, a University of Baltimore economist, said YouthWorks stimulates economic engagement in some of the city's low-income communities, where numerous barriers keep people from steady work.
"This is a program targeted to break that cycle of lack of employment," said Clinch, director of the university's Jacob France Institute.
Ernest Dorsey, assistant director at theMayor's Office of Employment Development, added that YouthWorks keeps teens busy and off of the streets during the summer.
"Young people are actively engaged in something positive, and learning something while they're doing that," Dorsey said.
Elijah Bell, a 15-year-old from the city's Poppleton neighborhood, is beginning his YouthWorks experience working at the Community Engagement Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore alongside 17 other youths from West Baltimore.
He and his peers are learning about different ways they can serve and improve the lives of those in their community, said Bell, who aspires to work in politics one day.
"To be a politician you need to know about the history of your country and where you are from," Bell said.
Others at the Community Engagement Center are considered YouthWorks veterans. Dejahna Banks, a 19-year-old who also lives in Poppleton, said the program has given her a summer job for five straight years.
"[Youthworks] pushes us to mature into a business atmosphere, and makes us strive [to be] better," said Banks, who aspires to be a writer and journalist.
Last year 25 young people were hired permanently through their private sector employer, Dorsey said — but not all YouthWorks opportunities end with a full-time job offer.
Those who participate get a chance to explore new fields, develop essential soft skills and potentially discover their passion — all while making money that goes back into their communities.
After her first summer at Rosedale, Huntley interned at Harbor Bank, a small Baltimore-based institution, through Hire One Youth. After her summer there, she asked if there were any full- or part-time positions available, she said. Days later she was brought on as a part-time teller, and has since become a full-time employee.
Harbor Bank President Joseph Haskins said that as a minority-owned company, Harbor Bank is committed to aiding city youth who may otherwise face limited options due to lack of exposure to a work environment.
The bank has been involved with YouthWorks since the program was first introduced, he said. It has three YouthWorks employees this summer.
"If more of the organizations around [here] adopt and bring students in this program, we'll have a real opportunity to reach a broad cross section of youth in the community," Haskins said.
Robin Bankins, who manages the Harbor Bank branch where Huntley works, said Huntley came in with ideas and a willingness to learn, and has been a model employee so far.
"She's like a sponge, she absorbs everything," Bankins said. "I wish we could get more young people to get involved with banking like she does."
Huntley said she hopes to stay at Harbor Bank long-term. But wherever she ends up, she now knows she wants to improve people's lives through customer service — a skill she's mastered thanks to the program.
"I'd be happy as long as I can continue making other people happy," Huntley said.