Jazar Williamson was such a city boy, he’d never used a lawn mower before. Having come from Connecticut, Williamson learned that in Newton County cutting lawns can be a full-time job, particularly at Gaithers Plantation. And he loved it.
"I’m not used to this country life, but I enjoyed learning to do everything for the first time," said Williamson, a 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at Alcovy High School, who interned at Gaithers Plantation this summer.
Williamson was among 65 Newton County teenagers who participated in the six-week Summer Youth Work Experience Program funded by Northeast Georgia Regional Commission. The program is designed to give teenagers their first paid work experience, up to 35 hours per week, to help them mature and become more attractive future job applicants. For Williamson, the program opened up a whole new side of life."He’s been really good help. Once we got him started cutting a field or doing other work, I could hardly get him to stop," said Marty Roberts Jr., the plantation’s caretaker. He noted that although Williamson had never even cut his family’s yard before, he caught on quickly and enjoyed the hard work.
Williamson also participated in the Explorers program through the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, and he plans to attend the Air Force Academy and eventually work in the sheriff’s office himself.
Eastside Senior Kelsey Dabney plans to pursue a major in theatre, but she still found her experience working with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce valuable. She answered phones, did research for economic development projects, helped with the Visitor’s Center and typed data into spreadsheets.
"I really liked everything. I enjoyed working in a place where the people were nice. I thought they would be hard and say ‘Get this’ or ‘Get that,’ but they were nice and helped me learn," Dabney said.
Chamber Office Manager Sherry Dudley said Dabney was the first student they interviewed back at one of the fairs for the program.
"She was very sharp and was able to jump in and help in several areas. I would definitely do it again," Dudley said.
Tahapenes "Happy" Outlaw, an Alcovy graduate, participated in the program for the second straight year, but this go-round she got hands-on experience in what she hopes is her future field. Outlaw worked with the University of Georgia County Extension Office where she studied disease strains under microscopes, tested soil samples and got her hands dirty, weeding and picking vegetables in the various community gardens. She’s planning to major in agriculture at Fort Valley State University.
Keresa Howard and Jeremy Peterson worked for the Newton County Board of Commissioners, helping Executive Administrative Coordinator Hosanna Fletcher with her "If I only had time list."
"The program was great. Sometimes what they did was administrative and routine to us, but it’s something they’ve never done before. And that really helps us out, because they take the routine stuff and free us up to do some other things," Fletcher said. "They are high school kids, so a lot of things we know we take for granted, but they haven’t had exposure yet. This gives them an opportunity to learn, in a pretty safe environment, the ins and outs of a basic work world and what you need to get in. They’re more prepared to get a real job because of this training."
Howard, a 17-year-old from Eastside, and Peterson, an 18-year-old from Newton, both said they became more organized and learned how to schedule their time and work on multitasking.
Changing the World, One Teen at a Time
NEGRC wasn’t the only organization hosting a teen work program, as the Georgia Department of Human Services sponsored the two-month Georgia TeenWorks Program.
Four of those kids interned with Joe Louis, owner of Stepping Out for Christ Ministries thrift store, located in the Fred’s shopping plaza. The program is perfect for Louis who has a long history of working with teens in pre-vocational training.
"With teenagers you have to establish an understanding of behavior and make sure they know exactly what is expected of you. The verbal contract with the promise of financial incentive helps and makes them more willing to receive constructive criticism, sometimes spirited criticism," Louis said.
Louis enforced a uniform dress code, made sure his interns showed up promptly at 7:30 a.m. and, most importantly, taught them responsibility and work ethic.
Both Timothy Manning, 18, and Daquan Perkins, 16, said they came into the program looking for nothing other than a check, but left with much more.
"I didn’t like it at first, because I didn’t want to get up at 6 a.m. I didn’t want to work all day. I had some confrontations with Mr. Louis. If this was a real job, I would have been fired," Manning said. "But Mr. Louis taught me a lot and endured with me. I learned how to take care of myself and be able to buy my own school supplies and clothing. I learned how to keep a job."
And Louis said that’s why pre-vocational training is so critical. Many young adults entering the work force out of high school simply aren’t prepared to hold down a job, or even properly apply for a job in the first place. If they are fired, they’re more likely to turn to illegal means to make a living. That’s something that concerns Perkins.
"Tim will be on his own soon. Imagine if we hadn’t met Mr. Louis. We might be on the streets and have to resort to selling drugs or stealing. But with this training, we know there’s another way. I feel we could really lower crime rates for teens with this training, Perkins said.
The two teens have experienced Louis’ training first hand and have bought into his system.
"It’s impossible to reach a major goal in one step; you have to take baby steps. This program helped me realize the realities of life. We’ll be running the country; we’re the next generation," Manning said. "If the Georgia TeenWork program could run all year long and we could get thousands of youth into it, we could make a huge difference. Mr. Louis was long suffering, he could have given up on us, but we wouldn’t have learned how to live a healthy life."
Manning, Perkins and the others are planning to tell their story to the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners. Louis has already spoken to new chamber President Hunter Hall about possibly getting other businesses to join with him in his quest to create a qualified work force.
Photographer Brittany Thomas conducted interviews for this story.