Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 34
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
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Students in the Summer Youth Employment Program Learn Job Skills While Having Fun

Dilshanie Perera

Princeton High School (PHS) Senior Zaid Smart was expecting to work at the public library or as a summer camp counselor when he found out he would be participating in the Human Services Department-sponsored Summer Youth Employment Program. Instead, “I got a notice saying I’d be in the facilities office,” he said.

While Zaid was initially distraught by the prospect of spending the summer indoors performing janitorial duties at Riverside Elementary, he said that in the course of the program he “learned to respect the job a lot more.”

“My other coworkers were great,” Zaid said, “and actually doing the job opens your eyes a lot. You respect the position, and you respect the people who do it.”

Each year, 20 to 25 students from area high schools aged 14 to 17, are selected to participate in the program, which pairs the student with a local non-profit organization or government agency for a seven-week internship. This year, students also attended three employment workshops where area professionals came to speak to program participants about their own experiences in the workforce.

Director of Human Services Cynthia Mendez first proposed the program (which is based on one that she pioneered during her previous tenure at the Urban League in Trenton) when she was interviewing for her job 11 years ago.

Characterizing the program as one that has been “really creative over the years,” Ms. Mendez is always looking for ways to improve it, or for new non-profits to bring on board.

The organizations that students worked with this summer in addition to the Human Services Department include Princeton Care Center, U-NOW Day Nursery, Princeton Nursery School, the YWCA, the Recreation Department summer camps, the Valley Road Daycare Center, the Bonner Foundation, the Princeton Public Library, the Princeton Regional School District’s Facilities Office, as well as the offices of the Superintendent of Curriculum and Human Resources, the IT department in the Township, the Health Department, the Tax Assessor’s Office, and Princeton HealthCare System.

“They give [the students] real work experience, and the partnerships have worked out really well,” Ms. Mendez noted, adding that having the students around has benefitted the agencies as well. “With non-profits, particularly for the last two years, money has been so tight, and we are able to give them additional help with no cost to them outside of supervision and some paperwork.”

The Youth Employment Program is funded by the Human Services Department, which is in turn, funded by the Borough and the Township. Other major contributors have been the J. Seward Johnson Charitable Trust, and Princeton Community Housing, which funds several of their residents to the program, helping the department offset its costs.

“We encourage them to save as much as they can,” Ms. Mendez said. Students are allowed to work up to 30 hours per week, and can make a maximum of $1,500 during the summer. “It helps families out too,” she added.

Some of the summer jobs turn into school-year-long employment. Ms. Mendez reported that she just received word from the Tax Assessor’s office that they would be hiring their summer intern through the year.

Other serendipitous happenings include a conversation between PHS Junior Marcia Bethea and a jewelry designer who came in for one of the employment workshops. When Marcia disclosed her love of design and interest in fashion and graphic design, the designer requested Marcia’s resume and cover letter for a future introduction to the head of New Jersey’s first fashion week for a possible internship.

Both Marcia and Zaid characterized their respective work experiences as having made them more attuned to the world around them in subtle ways, ranging from an appreciation for how much paper an office has to use within a given week to taking care not to litter.

For Ms. Mendez, the Summer Youth Employment Program is “one of my favorite things about my job” and certainly something of which she is “very proud.”

“They’re really good kids. I like working with teenagers, and this has been a really good group this year,” she added.

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