City program celebrates kids at work

City officials and community members involved in Youth At Work gathered Thursday night to celebrate the success of the organization’s efforts to raise $1.1 million and to provide employment to twice as many youth as it had the previous year.

Youth at Work is an initiative, run jointly by the city government and local private organizations, that places students aged 14 to 19 in community service-related jobs or companies. Although those present said they were very pleased with the results of the program, they said community groups must continue to compensate for federal negligence and promote public engagement in community affairs.

Last year, Youth at Work provided employment to 464 teenagers and raised $510,645, according to a press release issued by Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s office last week. This summer, the program found employment for 981 teenagers and raised twice as much money, the release said.

Those involved in the program said it seeks to benefit the community by keeping teens focused and allowing them to gain work skills, improving their economic prospects for the future.

“We know the value of investing in our youth so that they can lead successful lives,” City Community Services Administrator Sheila Allen Bell said.

Robert McGuire, a representative of United Way, an organization that serves on Youth At Work’s advisory committee, said that the program address two key issues in the New Haven community — economic disparity and educational disparity.

Officials at the event said community-based initiatives are all the more important now that youth programs’ funding has been reduced by federal budget cuts.

Work Force Alliance Representative Robert Fort said the Bush administration cut funding to youth initiative projects in early 2000, but New Haven was one of the few cities that continued to fund youth initiatives through private organizations. State Rep. Pat Dillon said the federal government has abandoned urban youth, undermining the overall efficacy of the programs.

“Four to five years ago the budget went south because of ideological differences — they just didn’t care,” Dillon said. “But it’s good that folks on the ground took the initiative.”

When asked about the potential for growth in youth initiatives, Project Coordinator Stephanie Barnes said the number of jobs they can create depends on the funding available.

McGuire said the “missing link” is always public involvement, and that an increase in public interest, whether in the form of donations or actual volunteer work, will greatly help to improve the program.

“No matter how much money we have, we won’t solve problems without civic engagement,” McGuire said.

Youth At Work is just “one spoke of the wheel,” Project Coordinator Stephanie Barnes said, and more youth programs and collaboration is needed for them to have a significant impact on the community. But the Youth at Work program has still been tremendously successful, Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark said.

“It’s a victory,” she said. “Rarely do you get to say we worked hard and got it right. It’s all positive.”

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