Involving Youth Participants as Staff

by Sabrina Evans-Ellis with Elizabeth Sosa
St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation

What I like best about being a counselor is the opportunity to change a young person’s life. That’s what my counselors did for me.
— Elizabeth Sosa, age 18

When Elizabeth Sosa first joined St. Nicks Summer Camp Program at age 8, she was a self-described introvert. She studied a lot and didn’t socialize much with other children. She says her youth camp counselors "broke me out of my shell." Elizabeth, now a counselor herself, credits her continuation in our afterschool program to her youth counselors: "I think it is easier for a youth counselor to relate to kids, and it makes the program feel more like a family. It’s like a big brother or sister playing with you or taking care of you, instead of a teacher."

The St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation has staffed its afterschool and summer programs with youth since 1998. Our young people facilitate literacy activities for children ages 5-10, implement afterschool clubs ranging from Scrabble to chess and dance, escort children on trips, lead recreation and sports activities, and assist guest resource specialists. Of the staff working directly with children and youth, 80 percent are between the ages of 16 and 24.

In theory, it would be easier to hire adult staff with significant work experience to be the heart of our programming—easier, but not the best choice for us. We value hiring young people because they bring unparalleled enthusiasm and new perspectives to the program. They are creative, funny, and willing to take more risks than many adults.

We treat our youth as professionals. Proper compensation, merit raises, training, and respect are crucial. But hiring youth goes beyond providing a job. We seek to meet developmental needs through what Karen Pittman calls "The Power of Engagement."

There is something developmental about engagement. . . . [D]evelopment often happens best through participation in causes bigger than oneself. Skills, attitudes, values and insights grow more quickly when there is purpose, especially when that purpose is immediate, relevant and external.

Recruiting and Selecting Youth Staff

In hiring youth (and adult) staff, we follow Michael Josephson’s suggestion: It’s easier to train a person of good character to do a job well than it is to develop character in a skilled but unprincipled employee. If you have to choose, hire for character and train for skills.

For this reason, we have an extensive process of recruitment, selection, and training that helps us gauge a young person’s trustworthiness and ability to work with others and make good decisions. We look for young people who are “coach-able”—willing to learn and improve.

To recruit youth staff, we work with our partner high schools, circulating flyers in lunchrooms, making homerooms presentations, and distributing flyers to current and past youth workers to give to their friends. We also ask current staffers, teachers, and guidance counselors for recommendations. In the rare cases when we advertise, we broaden our net to internet job boards and college job banks.

Sometimes this grassroots recruitment works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The good news is that our retention rate is very high, over 90 percent from year to year. We run into an employment crisis only in years like this one, in which 50 percent of our workforce will graduate high school and go on to college. To prepare the next wave of youth workers, we developed a program to "home-grow" our workforce, the After-School Training Institute (ASTI).

ASTI is a seven-week training program for Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) participants who identify an interest in working with children. ASTI, operating out of our Beacon Centers, hires approximately 50 SYEP youth per summer. Through workshops and an internship, youth focus on leadership skills, personal assessment, and goal-setting; they also learn literacy strategies as well as recreation and classroom management techniques. ASTI graduates are then eligible to apply for school-year positions at St. Nicks. Though they must complete the same hiring process as all candidates, participation in ASTI gives them a stronger application.

All youth staff, including ASTI graduates, go through a three-step selection process: interview, demonstration lesson, and a 25-hour training. This intensive process allows us to gauge the young people’s commitment, interest, and punctuality, as well as offering youth a full opportunity to determine if this is a job they would like.

Training Is Key

Once we hire youth staff, we reinforce program expectations in several ways, primarily through training. On-site formal training is led by site directors who will eventually supervise the youth staff, as well as by seasoned counselors—often young people home from college. We administer training in two intensive blocks and then once monthly on Saturdays. Over the years we have learned to separate levels of training. Though some general topics are covered in joint sessions, content and curriculum sessions are conducted separately for new staff, returning staff, and staff working with youth 5-10 and 11-14.

In addition, we hold weekly 90-minute formal planning sessions to prepare for the following week. In these sessions, the site director provides coaching and assistance for each team of classroom leaders. Site directors also provide at least 5-6 hours of focused, hands-on individualized coaching each month.

Special Challenges, Special Opportunities

One challenge of working with youth is a double-edged sword: We can never forget that they are staff, and we can never forget that they are youth. Exams, personal problems, and proms happen, but they cannot interfere with the job. At the same time, exams, personal problems, and proms happen, and the organization has to be prepared for some level of disruption. Being on the staff of a youth program is a journey, not a destination; youth are learning as they go. They deserve as many chances as we can afford until a situation becomes detrimental to them or to the program. Elizabeth advises, "Communicate with the workers you hire personally and professionally. That way when there is a personal situation, they know that you are there for them."

Involving youth as staff also means creating a special working environment--what most of our young people describe as a family environment. Our site directors know that they are not just administrators but also primary supports for their youth staff. They check report cards, wipe away tears, admonish and encourage, intercede on family issues. Staff meetings often feel like family gatherings. But the family atmosphere also means that our youth hold us to a high standard. As Elizabeth says, "It drives me crazy when you guys say you are going to do things and then don’t do it. It’s not just annoying; it feels like a broken promise." Repairing the effects of a broken promise is not easy. So organizations that hire young people have to be more, not less, intentional about being organized, communicating clearly, and treating their young staff professionally.

At St. Nicks, we don’t always know if we are doing the "right" thing with our young people. Sometimes it feels as if our “best practices” are just what was left standing after the mistakes. But we do know that involving young people as staff is worth the effort on every level: to the children they serve; to the parents who change their beliefs about teenagers; to St. Nicks, as we never cease to proud of their work; and most of all, to the young people, who discover their strengths, build their creativity, and learn what it means to make a meaningful contribution.

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In this Issue


Anne Lawrence
Amanda Moscoso
Sabrina Evans-Ellis
Elizabeth Sosa


Jan Gallagher

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David W. Hill

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