Smile Politely

Shedding light on the YES program

Admittedly, before this interview, I had not heard of the YES (Youth Employment Services) program even though I have lived in Champaign-Urbana for six years. However, after talking to a few students in the program and Jeanine Russell, the program supervisor, I found myself wishing I had such an amazing opportunity when I was in high school.

Before becoming what it is today, the YES program started out as an employment program for the summer months, providing high school students with job opportunities in the community. Over time, the program blossomed into a year-round program that incorporates career education and community engagement. The YES program is primarily funded by Champaign Unit 4 Schools and the City of Champaign, with students in the program pre-qualified for Free/Reduced Lunch. In the community, the YES program maintains partnerships with other youth programs including CARE4U and Operation Hope, and Busey Bank and the Regional Planning Commission provides savings accounts for the students, education in financial literacy, and training in completing hiring paperwork such as I-9 and W-4 forms.

Photo by Jeanine Russell

To apply for the YES program, prospective students are required to submit a complete application along with a short essay and career interests, with consideration for GPA and overall attendance records. Although a year-round program, the flagship program consists of a six-week summer work program where students work up to 105 hours over the course of six weeks. The students are matched with their employers based on their career interests, with worksite coordinators overseeing the process. Russell informed me that there are currently “five worksite coordinators working together with 100 students across 30+ employers” this summer. Among those 100 students, several are working in their very first job while others are returning to advanced positions after being a part of the program for several years.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Luca Villasenor and Cassandra Marino, both in their first year of the YES program, to hear their experiences as a YES student.

Villasenor knew right away that applying to the YES program was a good opportunity to get a job. Let’s face it, we were all wanting a job in high school — the feeling of spending hard-earned money is bliss. Ironically, his acceptance into the YES program landed him the job of student assistant for the YES program. Talk about giving back.

Marino on the other hand first heard about the program in homeroom class, after which her mom applied on her behalf. As an employee at the Champaign County healthcare office, Marino gets to hear about “consumer concerns regarding drug prices” and other related topics. “When I’m not given a research project, I keep track/alphabetize names of volunteers, create raffle tickets, and send out emails,” she explained to me with enthusiasm.

As the student assistant for the YES program, Villasenor “works on the newsletter and procures information about worksite coordinators and students.”

Photo by Lyndsey Groth

In addition to employment opportunities, the YES program holds workshops on topics such as resume-building, cover letters, interviewing, time management, and first impressions. Russell informed me that new curriculum, with workshops addressing employee and labor rights, communication, teamwork, and feedback, are currently slated to start next fall. Since Villasenor and Marino are still in their first year, they missed a few workshops early on in the year, but are looking forward to attending future workshops. Marino shared her experience at the One Big Career Fair, held in conjunction with CARE4U and Urbana High school, with recruitment for the fair done with the help of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce. She got a chance to talk to volunteers at an agriculture booth and learn more about career opportunities in the field.

When I asked both students about valuable skills they picked up at their respective jobs, they both agreed that “people skills and interview skills” were greatly improved. “Meeting people and talking to them, my overall confidence grew,” Marino reflected. Villasenor echoed her sentiment, recalling a time when he had to “speak in front of a room full of people using a microphone.” At first, public speaking was terrifying for him, but interacting with people on a daily basis allowed him to become more confident. “Getting to know people on a higher level, encountering people every day, and talking to worksite coordinators is part of my work. I didn’t think I would like the office job, but now I look forward to coming to work every day. I don’t want the program to end.”

To me, it was clear that both Villasenor and Marino love their jobs and cherish the skills/experiences they have gained so far in the YES program. As for career aspirations, Villasenor “wants to save money for college and work his way up in law enforcement towards becoming a detective” while Marino plans to “apply to the University of Miami, get my bachelor’s degree, and doctorate towards becoming a psychologist.” Both students “recommend the YES program to every high school student or anybody that wants a job and/or experience in the workforce.” I have no doubt that they are well on their way to achieving great things.

“It is inspiring for me to be a part of this program that is so uncomplicatedly good and such an indication of what we can get done when we’re together to provide for the community,” Russell summed up nicely. Because of people like Russell and the YES program, the youth in our community can feel empowered to provide for the community while at the same time gaining valuable skills.

To follow updates from the YES program and/or sign up for their newsletter, check out their website and Facebook page.

Top photo from YES program Facebook page

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