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Jobs and mentoring program sets youth on positive path

Sponsored Employment Program gives high-risk young adults a chance to change their lives

The Sponsored Employment Program is more than a summer job, participants and organizers of the East Palo Alto initiative say again and again.

On paper, the program's goal is to give disadvantaged East Palo Alto youth a summer job at local nonprofits, public agencies and private companies to teach them how to be professionals and stay off the streets.

But the program's supporters testify that its work goes far beyond that.

Take Claudia Gonzales, a 22-year-old with a 6-month-old daughter who graduated from this year's program and was hired part-time by her summer employer. She's from San Jose, where she became involved with gangs at a young age and soon had a criminal record. She didn't finish high school, and only one person in her life — a cousin who moved to Idaho — ever supported her or encouraged her to seek out a better life, she said.

But because of the Sponsored Employment Program, she's now employed part-time as an administrative assistant at TaxTime Solutions, an accounting firm in Menlo Park, and taking night classes to get her high school diploma.

The Sponsored Employment Program "taught me about school, like it's never too late to go back to school," Gonzales said. "And then they taught me that it's never too late to follow up on your dreams. They told me to just push forward — don't hold back and just push forward."

Gonazales and 76 other East Palo Alto youth, ages 14-24, took part in the program's ninth season, which is organized by the nonprofit One East Palo Alto. The initiative is also a product of collaboration with local job-placement nonprofit JobTrain, El Concilio of San Mateo County (a nonprofit coalition of groups that serve under-resourced communities in the county) and College Track, an after-school college-prep program in East Palo Alto.

Sponsored Employment Program received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this year, which helped cover the costs for two program participants, Executive Director Faye McNair-Knox said.

At a graduation ceremony at Costano Elementary School in August, the graduates filed in to a standing ovation from friends, family and local officials such as Police Chief Ron Davis, City Council Member Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier and San Mateo County supervisors Rose Jacobs Gibson and Don Horsley.

Faye McNair-Knox, executive director of One East Palo Alto, recalled the genesis of the Sponsored Employment Program.

"We actually work year-round planning, fundraising, volunteering, recruiting, building the community of support that underlays this important initiative, started in 2005, when we thought East Palo Alto was going to be on its way, again, to that unfortunate distinction that we earned in '92 of being the No. 1 murder capital (in the U.S.).

"And some of us felt that we were observing too much in the way of youth involvement in the spike in crime and violence at that time."

McNair-Knox and others held community meetings to discuss what she called a "pattern" plaguing the community.

"Early in the conversation people said: 'Where are the young people? Young people need to be a part of this conversation.' So we regrouped and invited the young people to a first meeting, and then we decided to have a second meeting featuring the young people where they could talk and we could listen. And honestly, I still remember that hard conversation with young people who told us: 'If you really cared about us ... you would get us a job.'"

The Sponsored Employment Program not only gives youth jobs, it also provides workshops that participants must attend in order to get their paycheck. The workshops cover how to write a resume, apply for jobs, apply to college and become successful. The workshops are led by program staff and peer mentors, a group of current college students from East Palo Alto.

Being a peer mentor is a full-time job in itself: They organize the workshops and other events throughout the summer, fill out paperwork for grants, make sure their mentees have correctly completed their time sheets and check to see if things are going smoothly at the job sites.

"Even though the program stopped on our part, there's a lot of stuff that you invest in when you start and it's not just something you can drop when it ends," said Mele Latu, who worked as a peer mentor this summer. Latu is in her last year at Johnson & Wales University in Florida. She's still in touch with many of her mentees, one of whom was Gonzales.

Latu "really helped me a lot actually," Gonzales said. "She helped me move in and out of my house. She helped me get to places, like to work sometimes. She helped me pick up my daughter sometimes when I couldn't find rides to go home. ... It was a friendship. She actually was the one that motivated me the most because I'm like, 'Wow, she came from this background.' If she could do it, I could do it, too."

Gonzales, who left San Jose when she was 18 years old, moved to East Palo Alto by herself to "change her life around."

"As soon as (employers) look at my background, they won't call me," she said, describing her job search before joining the Sponsored Employment Program. "I'll let them know too; I don't like to lie. I like to let them know so they can know that I changed and that's my past and I don't want to be that person. I never got call backs. I applied, applied, applied, applied, applied, applied, applied, applied; called, called and called. Nothing. With that background, it's hard."

Her boss, Carolyn Clarke, was also a young mother and understood that Gonzales needed someone to take a chance on her.

"When she first came, she was just full of energy and just positive drive to succeed, and I saw that," Clarke said.

Clarke said that she couldn't afford to let Gonzales go after the six-week program, so she hired her part-time.

"I'm pretty impressed with myself," Gonzales said of her job. "I really think this is my biggest accomplishment. "

Two other peer mentors this summer, Antwon and Sean Chatmon — twin brothers from East Palo Alto who are in their senior year at Whittier College in southern California — said that many youth simply need to see a different example for how to live their lives.

"There's a big fear in what's unknown," Antwon said, referring to families in which the young adult is the first to try to go to college. "So for them it's tough to balance, especially when they're younger they're going to listen to their parents and their older siblings. And if their older siblings made nothing out of their lives, then they're more likely to hold them down and do the same. So I think just showing them that it's OK to be smart, it's OK to go to school, it's OK to not fit in necessarily with certain groups of people because at the end of the day, you'll be successful."

At the August graduation ceremony, six peer mentors led the crowd in the "SEP Anthem," a rhyming slogan sung to a beat that works in English, Spanish, Tongan and Samoan — representative of the different ethnicities present in the program. They went through it in each language, teaching the audience as they went.

The last thing Gonzales had to say about the SEP program during her interview? She repeated the slogan.

"SEP is the place to be; it's more than a job — it's community."

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