YMCA program helps teens shape up with social and workplace skills

By Dan Metz

Flyers for teen programs cover the front desk of the Walnut Street YMCA: a YMCA College Tour, summer camp brochure, and a teens-only showing of the film “The Hate You Give.”

Working behind the desk is Ayanah “AJ” Jones, a high school junior and graduate of the Y’s Teen Workforce Development program. Watching her talk to customers, you might never guess that only a year ago she was petrified of talking to strangers.

Upstairs, in a big purple-and-white room, Camp Director Krystina Schneider has taped three dozen color-coded, laminated rectangles to the wall under the signs “Interview Tips for Success,” “Top 10 Interview Mistakes,” and “What is Your Greatest Strength?”

Two teams of teenagers gather points by guessing the answers on the backs of the cards. When a student on team “Turn Up” wins points for guessing that bad posture is one of the top 10 interviewing mistakes, Schneider turns to the group. “Look around. Is anyone in the room showing poor posture?”

The teens snicker at their slouching friends, but everyone straightens up a little. This is the Teen Workforce Development program (TWD), and it’s teaching these teens the skills they’ll need to succeed in the job market.

TWD started at the YMCA in 2017. Cohorts of 15-20 teens complete five weeks of workshops and online classes covering life and work skills like etiquette, conflict resolution and financial literacy. At the end of those five weeks, they’ll take newly crafted resumes and apply for internships: 100-plus hours of paid work experience over the course of the next 10 weeks. After that, the program ends, but many of the jobs, and the relationship with the Y continue.

AJ Jones finished TWD in January 2018, the shy sophomore with “people anxiety” now a confident junior who dreams of working as a 911 dispatch officer. “I honestly don’t think I would be where I am if it wasn’t for workforce, because I’m so nervous. It kind of helped me be myself.” Her internship brought her to the Y’s front desk, a place she would never have seen herself before the program.

Along with the workshops and interview practice, she credits co-participants like Naseem Matthews, a gregarious junior who plans to become a corporate field trainer in the restaurant industry when he graduates from school. “Seeing Naseem step out of his comfort zone and yelling, telling others how he feels, I felt like ‘Hey, I could do that.’”

Jones and Matthews are two of 29 teens who have continued to work at their internship jobs after course completion. That’s nearly half of the 65 participants who completed the program, a number which has attracted attention. TWD’s 2018-19 school year expanded from three to five cohorts, and there’s talk of YMCA Delaware replicating the program at other sites across the state.

Demand for the program is so high that Schneider says new cohorts often fill in a few hours, with past and current participants spreading the word on social media before the marketing team can catch up. “For anyone age 15 and up,” says Matthews, “the workforce program is actually that resource that’s there for them to get a job and start their career.”

Back at the Walnut Street Y, Schneider and her cohort move from theoretical to practical: the teens pair off and practice shaking hands and answering interview questions, asking each other to “Tell me about a time you failed and what you learned from the experience?” Some are shy and mumble, but Schneider says
not to worry. “Nothing teaches quite like practice, and they’ll get plenty of it on the job.”

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