As a pall of heat and humidity envelopes the city this summer, punctuated by sporadic outbursts of gunfire and smoky air, nervous parents of modest means shield their children the best they can. That often means for many teenagers a summer cooped up in apartments playing video games.
That is not to be for the son of Meliana Alejandro of the Bronx. Giovanna, 14, is described by his mother as “Quiet, he doesn’t want to go out.” She is determined to break him out of his shell.
Fortunately for mother and son, Giovanna landed himself a job with the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) with Alianza, a division of Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York. On one steamy July afternoon, the Dominican Cultural Center in Washington Heights, an Alianza SYEP location, was abuzz with activity. On the third floor, Giovanna and dozens of his SYEP colleagues were learning about careers in science and technology. In the basement, SYEP workers were assisting in an art class for elementary-age children where the assignment was producing masks for the upcoming Dominican Day Parade in Manhattan. In a studio just a few steps away, SYEP workers were learning about Dominican dances, techniques they will later teach to day camp youngsters.
The SYEP youth are among a total of 1,857 enrolled this summer in the Alianza program, who work and learn out of the Washington Heights location as well as in the offices of political leaders, stores, medical centers, and day camps scattered throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. Participants include young people from ages 14 to 24, who undergo job skills training as well as placement in businesses and non-profit agencies. Best of all, they receive a paycheck, up to $2,000 for older workers in the program, a lifeline for lower-income families as well as for college expenses for many.
“For many kids, it’s their first-time experience,” said Monique Myers, Director of Youth Support Programs for Alianza. Monique herself is a graduate of the SYEP program, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. What are considered routine job-seeking tasks, such as filling out Social Security forms and composing resumes, is essential to the SYEP program, said Monique. This year, for the first time since Covid, SYEP workers are allowed to be employed in city hospitals, a valuable training ground for those considering healthcare careers. Employers this year include Columbia University Medical Center, retail outlets such as Staples, as well as the offices of city council members and the borough presidents of Manhattan and the Bronx.
It’s a universe of opportunity, and SYEP participants are quick to note that summer options would be much more limited without the program.
Jailin Rodriguez, 15, said that she is learning about the need to help her community, with career counseling offered by SYEP being a key. The problems are many in her community, which she wants to help change with her goal of one day becoming a lawyer.
“Homeless people need shelter. There are people who lack education. There is a lack of food,” she said. “We are learning about how we can help our communities.” She said she is absorbing lessons about advocacy and how to participate in discussions on important issues. “There are two sides to every discussion,” she noted.
Eileen Cerda, 14, said that the SYEP approach – the focus for younger participants is education, with the older students working jobs – allows for more personal attention than many can receive in the public schools they attend.
Eileen, for one, is unsure of what she might want to pursue as a career. Still others see clear pathways to future goals. Yeiry Lantigua, 14, is thinking of becoming a nurse. Aaron Seoprasad, a high school student, wants to be a mechanical engineer.
Kiara Velasquez, 17, a graduate of Cathedral High School in Manhattan, will attend Iona College in the fall, where she plans to major in communications. At SYEP, she is working with children for the second consecutive summer, teaching arts and crafts. Like any good teacher, she’s learning as well. One session provided training in Dominican drum playing. Kiara is from a Dominican and Honduran family, yet was unaware of that part of her cultural heritage. “We learn how to play and that is cool,” she said.
Estrella Chavez, 20, is also working as a SYEP camp counselor this summer. She is of Mexican background, but her knowledge of things Dominican has increased tremendously, making her feel a special connection to the Dominican community in New York. “It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “We learn about the culture.”
SYEP participants take in the educational aspects of the program, as well as develop work skills that will serve a lifetime. But perhaps the biggest impact in the lives of participants is, in a nutshell, money. There is pride in earning a paycheck, a first experience for many.
Jessica Figaro, 31, is a SYEP supervisor and is an alumna of the program, which she worked on when she was in high school. Her first job with SYEP was to promote the program to her fellow Bronx teenagers. What she remembers most is the impact that earning a paycheck had on her confidence and sense of self-worth. “The program guided me to making my own money by working and not being shy. I got to buy things I wanted that my parents could not afford. I was able to help my mom and help provide for myself,” she recalled.
Monique Myers noted that the impact of SYEP is often felt in subtle ways, developing confidence in navigating real-life situations. Many of the young people are seeking mentors, she said, and she encourages them to keep in touch with the counselors and teachers they encounter at SYEP. And Monique said that SYEP participants are exposed to ways of doing things that might have been more valued in earlier times.
Covid had an impact on this generation, she says, causing young people to be more cautious, less willing to take risks and to explore beyond their own homes or immediate neighborhoods. And omnipresent technology has its negative impact, with youngsters in the Bronx and Manhattan, as they are all over, absorbed in their cellphones and video games.
“Young people need to get out of technology land,” she said. “It’s become a comfort zone for a lot of our young people.”
Melianna Alejandro hopes that her son will also develop skills that go beyond technology. Progress can be seen in small steps.
SYEP provides the kinds of opportunities that her son needs. She knows because her older child, a daughter named Kimberly, entering her senior year in high school, has grown through her SYEP experience, and she hopes that Giovanna will begin to break out of his adolescent shell as well. Results are not fully in, as he had only a few weeks in the program as of mid-July. But she is hopeful that by the end of the summer she will see progress.
“I want him to be socialized. I want him to express himself,” she said, confident that a summer of full activities and employment via SYEP will assist in a way other programs can’t, with Giovanna reveling in the summer going well beyond video games in a teen boy’s bedroom in a Bronx apartment.