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After scaling back due to COVID, Baltimore’s YouthWorks program welcomes some teens back to in-person jobs this summer

After a year and a half of sitting inside and peering at a computer screen, Kamaya Taylor is glad to be outside.

Kamaya, who lives in Westport, spent last summer completing a virtual math program. This summer, she’s cleaning streets and planting trees for the Westport Community Economic Development Corp., an organization that aims to improve quality of life in low-income South Baltimore neighborhoods.

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“I like cleaning up. It’s nice to have a clean community,” Kamaya said.

The 14-year-old is among the almost 6,400 young people in Baltimore’s YouthWorks cohort this summer. The program, which began June 28 and runs for six weeks, offers summer employment to people ages 14 to 21. The city has partnered with more than 400 employers to hire and pay teens $11.75 an hour for up to 20 hours a week.

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lt’s somewhat of a return to normalcy after last summer, when the YouthWorks team at the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Development had to revise the program to comply with COVID-19 precautions. They employed fewer teens and most worked remotely.

Kamaya Taylor, 14, (left) and Day-Aisia Parker, 17, pick up trash near the Westport Light Rail Station as part of their YouthWorks program. The girls work for Westport Community Economic Development Corp., which aims to improve the quality of life in low-income South Baltimore neighborhoods.
Kamaya Taylor, 14, (left) and Day-Aisia Parker, 17, pick up trash near the Westport Light Rail Station as part of their YouthWorks program. The girls work for Westport Community Economic Development Corp., which aims to improve the quality of life in low-income South Baltimore neighborhoods. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

But while there are more in-person participants this year, the majority of YouthWorks employees are working remotely again, said Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the employment and development office. About 970 young people are working in person and roughly 1,000 are doing a mix, according to YouthWorks program manager S. Rasheem.

It’s the first year that Westport CEDC, Kamaya’s employer, is participating with YouthWorks. The group has four workers, ages 14 to 17, who work from 8 a.m. to noon picking up trash in Westport and surrounding areas. Later in the summer, they’ll work on an urban farm project in South Baltimore’s Mount Winans neighborhood and plant trees.

“Employing young people, especially in organizations that are mission driven … and to be able to pay them — this is really a bonus for us,” said Lisa Hodges-Hiken, the group’s executive director.

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Like Kamaya, the other three students spent last summer inside. Jawon Blue, a 16-year-old living in Federal Hill in South Baltimore, said he feels more connected working in person than over Zoom. James Williams, a 14-year-old from Mount Winans, said he’s grateful the coronavirus pandemic is slowing down.

Day-Aisia Parker, 17, of Rognel Heights in Southwest Baltimore, said she likes that the job gets her up and out of bed in the morning, though working remotely last summer was more relaxed. Her commute involves two or three buses in the summer heat. But she’s looking forward to saving money to help with the costs of attending Loyola University in Baltimore next year.

“I’m excited to meet new people, and basically just help out the community by cleaning out storm drains, making it look pretty,” Day-Aisia said.

Kellie Carrington, a community organizer supervising Westport CEDC’s YouthWorks employees, has been blown away by the teens’ hard work.

“They’re cleaning, picking up trash in the summertime,” Carrington said. “Kids want to hang out, they want to play games, sleep in. I just really appreciate their initiative, their enthusiasm and their willingness to do the work.”

While the return to in-person work has been exciting, YouthWorks organizers say there are benefits from having the option for virtual participation. The program offers supplemental videos and webinars, such as career spotlights and financial literacy sessions.

“In the past, you would have to physically go to a site, which is limiting in terms of the numbers,” Perkins-Cohen said. “Youth and adults were able to adjust virtually and make more information and assistance accessible to people.”

A new feature this year gives youth the opportunity to earn money while attending summer school. Almost 300 youth have chosen this route, Rasheem said.

Makiyah Wilson, a 14-year-old student in Baltimore shown on July 2, 2021, is enrolled in the YouthWorks summer program.
Makiyah Wilson, a 14-year-old student in Baltimore shown on July 2, 2021, is enrolled in the YouthWorks summer program. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

YouthWorks was able to recruit students in person last year, as the pandemic didn’t take hold until after the application process. This winter, helping youth and their families register virtually for the first time was a challenge.

“Some of the participants are just now getting over the digital divide that so many of us saw last summer where they didn’t have computer access or internet access,” Rasheem said.

To combat this, YouthWorks partnered with the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition to bring on technicians who helped young people navigate the application process. Rasheem coordinated in-person drop-offs for families that an alternative way to provide necessary documents.

Makiyah Wilson, 14, is one of YouthWorks’ remote employees. Her home in Allendale in Southwest Baltimore, where she lives with her father, Michael Wilson, is her office this summer. She was placed with a job coach who works with her on career-building activities.

Though it can be difficult to communicate over Zoom, Makiyah’s excited to interact with her work coach and fellow students. She’s eager to improve her collaboration skills, especially after a year of isolation amid the pandemic.

“I usually work alone, and that doesn’t really help with my social skills at all,” Makiyah said. “So, I really hope to be more collaborative and express my ideas to other people.”

One of this summer’s employers is Vicinity Energy, a sustainable energy company that’s participated with YouthWorks for more than a decade. Their student employees are working in person this summer. Michael Pierorazio, the director of operations, said the company has hired some YouthWorks employees full time in the past.

“I like working with the students, having a fresh set of eyes,” Pierorazio said. “Someone who doesn’t know what you do usually offers out-of-the-box solutions to issues that you may be having.”

Giving youth the opportunity to earn money is essential, Rasheem said. But she also wants the YouthWorks cohort to envision themselves as leaders.

“The foundational hope is that this helps to build their future careers,” Rasheem said.

Kamaya, who is a rising freshman at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, also believes in the power of youth seeing themselves as leaders. She’s seeking funding to start a mentorship program for elementary school students at her former school, Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School.

“I feel like they don’t have many opportunities to be leaders, so I wanted to create a space for the younger scholars to get that training,” Kamaya said.

And YouthWorks members are thinking about their career passions, just as Rasheem and Perkins-Cohen hoped. Kamaya’s interested in biomedical engineering and Makiyah aspires to pour her love of baking into a restaurant one day. Even if their YouthWorks placement doesn’t align directly with their dreams for the future, Perkins-Cohen said the experience is still crucial.

“It’s really important for youth to try out things that might be the career path that they want to go on in their future,” Perkins-Cohen said. “Or, it might be, ‘Now that I’ve experienced this, it’s not for me’ and that’s equally valuable.”

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