The waitress job is the 17 year old's first -- and in many ways, her stepping stone to independence. Cotton lives in an apartment with her mother and 2-year-old son, Khyree, in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in East Palo Alto. There is a history of so much gang violence in the area that social workers cannot come to visit the teen, according to Allan Johnson, director of youth programs at Opportunities Industrialization Center West (OICW), which manages an innovative summer-job program that hired Cotton.
"I never had a job before. I was down. I didn't think I had a future," said Cotton, who now aspires to being a server or nurse-assistant.
Six thousand young people between the ages of 10 and 24 live in East Palo Alto, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Challenged by poverty, crime, raising children as single parents or with limited education and no job experience, many face a bleak future, community leaders said. But the Sponsored Employment Program takes a serious stab at crime reduction by providing jobs and job-skills training to the city's least promising members.
Unlike other youth-jobs programs training East Palo youth -- such as College Track, PeninsulaWorks Jobs for Youth, and the fledgling Tri-City Youth/Business Summit between Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park -- Sponsored Employment Program (SEP) organizers look for teens who need the most help: those with no work experience, no high school diploma, limited or no English skills, a juvenile criminal record, in foster care or of low income.
The 6-week program is open to teens and young adults ages 14 to 24. An estimated 4,000 young people fit the program's profile, according to Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, executive director of One East Palo Alto, which started the SEP program.
"I never had a dad," said Cotton, who dropped out of school when she had her son. "My mom's always working, and she's tired and getting old. ... Now I feel like it's my turn to take care of her and my son. Instead of people asking me in five years where I'm going to be, I am telling them where I'm going to be. I'm taking my GED in August. I think I'm ready."
The need for sponsored employment became achingly clear to East Palo Alto community leaders when the city's murder rate began climbing again in 2005 with younger youth its victims.
One East Palo Alto, a nonprofit that focuses on community cohesion and self-betterment, spearheaded a task force on crime prevention. A series of community forums involving youth revealed a frightening world of violence and fear, McNair-Knox said. Pistol-packing classmates boarded the bus with youngsters going to school.
"They read us the riot act," McNair-Knox said. How could adults allow this kind of environment if they cared about young people? they asked.
"We said, 'Tell us what you need.' They said, 'We need jobs," McNair-Knox said.
"We listened. We pledged that we wouldn't just talk. ... Summer was just around the corner, and we looked at bringing in summer jobs.
"There weren't many choices. There has been a drying up of youth employment and government jobs programs. They needed a support system to move into a job situation, to learn how to do it successfully," she said.
One East Palo Alto started the jobs program with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The pilot project employed 30 young people mostly at nonprofit groups. The program, now operating with an annual budget of $400,000, grew in 2006 to 100 youth and young adults who worked up to 30 hours a week. Jobs range from clerical to day care, filmmaking and culinary arts.
Menlo Park-based OICW handles job training and placement, and El Concilio of San Mateo County, which promotes quality of life improvement for underserved Latinos, provides and trains mentors who help the young adults succeed (see sidebar) .
"This is the first paycheck most have ever received. I've watched them grow from not having respect for adults in the community to having respect. I saw some hard-core kids come around," OICW's Johnson said. "Some kids are now legitimately hirable."
Nonprofit groups offer the best chance for youth to have their first job experiences in a nurturing environment, he said. Trainees receive help with everything from comportment to negotiating transportation. Crucial to the program's -- and teens' -- success is that they won't be fired. The program has a high completion rate, with few dropouts, McNair-Knox said.
Luisa Buada is the executive director of the Ravenswood Community Health Center, which has hired some of the young people.
"The biggest challenge is giving them a job they can pick up and learn and keep them interested," Buada said.
Last year, Buada hired SEP trainee Adriana Lopez, 22, who had worked the previous year at Stanford University at the Martin Luther King Papers Project.
"I'm a single parent, and I had no income. I was very stressed," Lopez said.
Buada said the match between Ravenswood and Lopez was a perfect fit.
"We gave them a specific idea of what we needed: someone who is bilingual and 18 or older and who is a quick learner and could jump in and be responsible and versatile. Adriana is a teen mom, so it's a great connection. She's part of our family, in a way. ... She's done great, and we enjoy having her here," Buada said.
The receptionist position at the resource center led Lopez to a full-time job at Ravenswood. She calls patients with specialty referrals, directs people to appropriate locations and manages the mail between three buildings, Buada said. The job has given Lopez peace of mind and the ability to be self-supporting, she said.
Through Canopy, the Palo Alto nonprofit that plants thousands of trees in the urban landscape, young people hired through OICW tend to 1,000 trees planted in East Palo Alto. Strong, erect trees with spring-green foliage line the sound wall area next to the 101 freeway, where weeds, glass, trash and remnant parts of cars involved in accidents once littered the right-of way. Here, six teens carefully water and mulch the saplings, bringing life to the bleak urban landscape.
Working outdoors with plants defies the youths' definition of what a real job is, Canopy Program Director Genevra Ornelas said, but they've received a lesson in team work
Learning that point has sometimes meant going through tough moments. At first, two hirees were not getting along, and Ornelas worried about racial tension affecting their work.
But not anymore.
"They learned that most people are OK once you get to know them," she said.
Despite occasional rough spots, everyone comes on time every day.
"At points (some teens) haven't liked me. I said, 'Liking me is not a requirement for your job. Ignoring me is not an option,'" she said.
Ornelas forgot how important a sense of belonging to an organization can be, she said.
"One of the best parts for me is when I recently gave a kid who came into the program a name tag. He was so excited that he had his own name tag," she added.
The decision to use nonprofits for a first work experience was made in part to instill social responsibility, McNair-Knox said. At Canopy, the tree experience is beginning to pay off. One boy wants to return as a Canopy volunteer, Ornelas said.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen at MiMe's Café, padded mitt in hand, Joerelle Bennett, 16, recently squatted down before a stainless-steel oven, peering at a carrot cake -- his specialty. Six weeks ago, this isn't where he thought he would be. But he now marvels that OICW matched him with a potential career that seems a perfect fit.
"I got an eye-twisting view of how my life will be in the future; I took such an interest in it. I'm finding I have a passion for it. It's kind of scary. You find that something might catch your attention," he said.
Bennett and his twin brother have always dreamed of careers in singing and acting. His assignment to MiMe's was at first a disappointment, he said.
"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. I'm going to be so rude and have to clean up.' But (Culinary Arts Instructor Adam Weiner) put me in the kitchen. I cooked a chicken on my first day."
Cooking has become his passion, and he's thinking about a career in culinary arts, he said.
Getting a job hasn't been easy for the Palo Alto High School junior. He had tried.
"I didn't have any experience, and I didn't have a resume. I wasn't brave about seeking work. I was so scared of rejection," he said.
Last year, he got his first SEP job working in the office at Bayshore Christian Ministries in East Palo Alto. The job gave him confidence and what he sees as an "in" to future jobs: experience to list on a resume.
There is evidence on the streets that programs such as Sponsored Employment are starting to work, said Tyler Moody, 18, an intern at One East Palo Alto who wants to study film and become a critic.
"Most people I know are talking about wanting to get a job. I see fewer kids on the corner," he said.
McNair-Knox said she has also seen a big difference in East Palo Alto over last year.
"People are not going to be satisfied anymore with a city that can't offer its young people work."
She cited the community's willingness to step up when funding came up short this year. The Hewlett grant ran out, and for a while it looked as though SEP could only raise enough money to hire 58 young people. But church groups, some of the job sponsors and the City of East Palo Alto jumped in to raise enough money to pay for 100 jobs. More than 340 young people applied.
McNair-Knox would like to obtain enough funding each year to hire 1,000. At that rate, every young person aged 14 to 24 could have work experience and a resume to build on in just a few short years. That, she said, could transform a generation, and generations to come.