Director of Champaign's youth-employment program shares vision for expansion

Director of Champaign's youth-employment program shares vision for expansion

CHAMPAIGN — Looking to expand on an already-successful initiative, Jeanine Russell shared her vision for Champaign's Youth Employment Services program with local leaders Wednesday.

Since 2011, the program — formerly known as the Summer Youth Employment Program — has provided hands-on work opportunities to Champaign school district students between the ages of 14 and 19. For six weeks during the summer, more than 100 students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are placed in jobs around the community and paid through the program. They're exposed to training, resume-building and workshops in an effort to better prepare them to find jobs outside of school, Russell said.

Since taking over as supervisor in November, Russell told those in attendance at Wednesday's Champaign Community Coalition meeting, she has met with over 70 local partners and twice as many students to hash out where the program goes from here.

"When I first got hired, I was intimidated by the scope of the program," she said. "But when I started diving into the relationships and talking to people, I found one first-time YES employer who told me she had a student who was going through a lot of trauma at home. The job she had for six weeks in the summer was the place where that student had peace and consistency in their life. I met with that employer, and now they want to take three students this summer.

"This program works. It's foundationally solid. Now, we need to think about growth for the program."

Among the changes Russell has in mind is offering a new workshop dedicated to employee rights, "so when they go out into the real world and they're treated poorly, they can identify the reasons and understand that they get to pick up and move on and they have the resources to do so effectively."

Russell added that the program has partnered with Wolfram Research to teach open-source programming to students with the Google Chromebooks "they already have." Russell also wants to partner with trades and make sure that students interested in those fields after high school "graduate with a 10-hour OSHA certification that will jump them to the top of the list because they already have training."

Champaign Community Relations Manager Tracy Parsons said the coalition should work to connect this program with ones like it to expand capacity and be more efficient. He said a big aspect of programs like this one is the difference they make in some families' lives.

"As we get a chance to think about these things, we need to remember that their need for money is a whole other level than what we understand," Parsons said. "For a lot of them, in their family dynamics, the need for money is critical. Often, that money can make a difference between the students and their siblings eating or having access to other things. So we must continue thinking about how we strengthen these programs for our youth."