Photograph by Benjamin Norman
Sept. 4, 2020
When Laisha Gonzalez de Peña landed an office job at a Washington Heights day camp last summer, she knew the money would help her with household expenses and college tuition. What she didn’t expect was how she, a recent immigrant who was shy and legally blind from lupus, would also find the confidence to open up about her life during chats with the young campers.
“I was scared to talk about being legally blind and tell people why I use a cane,” said Laisha, 19, a Bronx Community College student who wants to be a vocal coach. “I felt people would look at me weird. But the camp gave me the space to be original and not feel weird talking about my disability.”
She had hoped to return to that job, funded by the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, this year. But then coronavirus hit, and the city initially decided to eliminate the program. At the last minute, officials brought it back in a drastically reduced and virtual form, leaving thousands of young people without work.
Laisha landed one of the jobs two weeks into the program — online classes on work skills that she hardly found engaging. She almost dropped out.
“I was bored, to be honest,” she said.
Worried about the pandemic and a looming financial crisis, the city cut the program, referred to as S.Y.E.P., in April to save $124 million — just over a tenth of a percent of the $88 billion budget proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio for the coming fiscal year.
In June, after pushback from neighborhood groups, social service agencies and young people, the City Council revived the program. But the now shortened, all-virtual program, called Summer Bridge, had only about half the usual slots.
“So many good things came out of S.Y.E.P.,” said Eddie Silverio, director of Catholic Charities Community Services’ Alianza Division, which sponsored Laisha’s job last year. “This is an entry-level opportunity that adds to their résumé. The young people take every opportunity to make things better.”
With one day seemingly blending into the next because of the pandemic, many participants this summer said they found it difficult to stay engaged. For those who didn’t get a job, the missed opportunity was yet another letdown in a year of uncertainty and isolation.