Immigrants And Refugees

Summer youth employment program offers pathway to careers, college

Alianza SYEP Participants. Photo Credit: Catholic Charities of New York

Eddie Silverio, Director of Youth Services for Alianza, a division of Catholic Charities of New York, has seen thousands of young people make their way through the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), administered by Alianza and funded by the City of New York. It’s hard to remember them all. But he remembers one in particular.

At a recent health fair, he ran into a young man who couldn’t wait to tell him the impact SYEP and Alianza had on his life.

More than a decade ago, as a teen, he was recruited by SYEP and was sent to work at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“They ended up keeping me,” he said. “I became a nurse,” the SYEP graduate proudly proclaimed.

A success story, but not an uncommon one. Alianza, with the support of the SYEP program, takes young people from the Bronx, Washington Heights and Harlem, who might otherwise spend the summer hanging with their friends, and brings them on a road that can lead to landing a slice of the American Dream. The program, for many participants, breaks through the adolescent awkwardness of responding to the age-old question, “What are you going to do when you grow up?”

Other graduates and current students note the impact of SYEP.

Kenneth worked as a camp counselor and a census worker. It was a welcome respite and an opportunity to educate himself about a possible future career. Another SYEP participant, legally blind, is using lessons learned at SYEP to develop her own clothing line, featuring Braille embroidery.

“I was just going to be hanging with my friends,” Kenneth said of his prospects during his SYEP summer. “Now, I’m changing other people’s lives.”

“These are the stories that apply to a young person who may have been unsure today but will find his or her own path,” said Mr. Silverio about the young people who each summer go through the SYEP program.

For six weeks each July and August, Alianza leads job training and placement for some 2,000 young people, selected among tens of thousands who apply for the opportunity. Younger students, ages 14 and 15, undergo extensive training and earn a $700 stipend. Older students, ages 16-21, earn the New York State minimum wage of $15 per hour and work in non-profit agencies, summer camps and hospitals.

SYEP program participant gives a presentation. Photo Credit: Catholic Charities New York.

Employers also include retailers such as Key Food, New York at Your Service, Pioneer Supermarkets, The UPS Store, Super Foodtown, Pinkberry, McDonald’s and Subway.

Last summer the program was threatened by looming budget cuts and was saved by a concerted lobbying effort. Because of Covid, students worked online, avoiding in-person contact like many other workers during the height of the pandemic. This summer’s program, as the city slowly emerges from Covid restrictions, is expected to include more in-person training and work.

The money is helpful to SYEP participants, many of whom come from low income families. It’s a particular help for those students ready to enter college. Monique Myers, a graduate of the State University of New York at New Paltz, knows that feeling.

She is a SYEP graduate and is now director of Youth Employment Programs for the Alianza Division of Catholic Charities Community Services. She recalls when she entered SYEP as a high school student, she gravitated towards work in the Alianza office because she wanted to learn about work in an agency that serves youth.

“It helped me to help young people,” Ms. Myers recalled, noting how SYEP inspired her to pursue her career goals.

Mr. Silverio noted that much of SYEP training involves nurturing the “soft skills” that employers seek. That routinely has meant a focus on presentation, getting along with others and clearly communicating with a boss. Now, in the Covid and social media age, it has evolved to lessons on Zoom call etiquette, as well as a focus on the importance of punctuality, how to construct a Linked-In account and the proper way to write an email to a boss. Issues about managing time are also a prime concern.

“It’s about learning who you are,” said Ms. Myers.