Isaiah Spence has spent the past several weeks working with Sandy Fowler, Porterdale’s downtown manager, to organize events like the city’s Fourth of July Celebration; and the 18-year-old student enjoyed the experience so much he’s thinking about going into event planning instead of studying business administration when he attends DeKalb Technical College this fall.
“I loved it. I’ve always been into planning so it was great to see how it was really done,” Spence said. “I gained a sense of multitasking, because of all the things you need to do to plan an event. I also had the sense of seeing something grow nothing to a really big event.”
Spence is one of about 125 Newton County youths who worked at various governments and non-profit organizations, as part of the Workforce Investment Act, a program which provides professional and educational experience and which received additional stimulus funding this year to expand the program from its previous capacity of around 20 students.
Students in need, ranging in age from 14 to 24, were paid through the program to assist local churches, governments and non-profits; the students worked for up to 35 hours per week. Students worked as summer camp counselors at Hebron World Church, as researchers for the African-American Historical Society, as customer service representatives for the City of Covington and in many other capacities for several other organizations.
Spence’s 24-year-old sister Shavonda Rhodes helped tutor students who were working toward their GED at Hands-on-Newton.
“I learned all about non-profits; I had never done community service before. The program was very helpful,” Rhodes said. “I’m thinking about starting a non-profit organization myself someday. I’d love to run a GED program, because it really can help a lot of people.”
Dana McKnight, the program’s summer youth monitor for Newton County, said the program was a great success this year, especially because nearly 900 students were able to participate across 12 counties thanks to stimulus money, compared to around 200 most other years.
She guessed that this program provided the first job for around 80 percent of the youths. Because this was the first work experience for so many of the students, there were some problems, but McKnight said that less than 10 of the students ended up being fired by their employers, an overall good rate.
“Most of the employers said they would love to hire the students on full-time if they had the money,” McKnight said.
Many students who weren’t selected for work, particularly the younger students, were instead educated on how to get a job in the future. Director Bea Jackson and others at the Washington Community Center taught students how to dress professionally, create a resume and search for jobs. Jackson said she really enjoyed working with the kids and hopes the program will continue to grow in the future.
“It’s bittersweet coming to the end, but I’ve seen all of these kids grow for the better. It’s wonderful because the kids in Newton County deserved this,” Jackson said. “I want to thank all the organizations that participated. I want to thank President Obama and the whole community. A community that came together and showed true collaboration to make this program successful.”
One of the more engaging projects, was the research work done by a handful of students for the African-American Historical Society. McKnight said three young women in particular really embraced the search through the county’s black history. She said they search through old records, talked to important figures from the county’s civil rights movement and developed the association’s Web site to share what they learned, afro-newton.wikispaces.com.
The girls were particularly intrigued by the case of Susan Ivy, a free black woman who actually sold herself into slavery.
“They did tons of research to try to find out why this happen,” McKnight said. “They used their research to formulate some theories, and then finally chose one they thought was most plausible and wrote and performed a play based on their theory. The thought behind that play was incredible.”
The students also identified eight or nine historical black locations around Newton County where historical makers or plaques should be placed. Association President Forrest Sawyer Jr. said there are no historical black markers in the county. The interns wrote up the information for the plaques, but the association needs money to get the plaques placed.
Sawyer was initially disappointed with the lack of historical knowledge the students had, but he was pleased with the work they did and everything they learned; and with the program.
“None of this would have been possible with the WIA and Dana,” Sawyer said. “Eventually, this program’s work will attract the president and gain attention with the Department of Education. It will be a model for the Southeastern U.S. on how to acquire African-American history.”
To that end, Local Social Worker Nafeesah Shaheed said she and others are working to create a Web site that will have testimonials from the students to show what they learned and to describe the value of the program.
McKnight said she hoped the program will be able to help this many youths again next year and into the future, but that will all depend on how much the program can secure next year.