Connecting to Disconnected Youth

Jamel was raised in housing projects in Lawrence, MA. When he was 17, he was convicted of armed robbery and incarcerated for 18 months. Upon release, he floated from one dead-end job to another, was nearing homelessness, and battling drug addiction. Now 22, Jamel has paid, full-time employment in food services, and is enrolled at Middlesex Community College.  

United Way has long-held the belief there are no wrong doors to helping people in need. That includes a willingness to partner and experiment with new approaches to engage hard-to-reach young people ages 16 to 24 who are not working or in school. Sometimes, breaking the cycle of poverty and helping young people find their path, whatever it might be, means first breaking the mold of traditional youth programming.

Supporting unconventional practices 

Without the intensive coaching from the youth outreach workers at United Way partner agency UTEC, Jamel may still be among the 17,600 young people in Massachusetts ages 16-24 who are not working or in school.

According to a 2017 Boston Indicators report, youth who are disconnected from school or employment are at greatest risk of long-term poverty, incarceration and substance abuse. A recent report from MassBudget notes that disconnected youth typically lack strong social networks that provide employment connections and other supports.

Youth are our greatest source of untapped potential for the future,” said Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “United Way has long history of partnering with nonprofits to develop pathways for disconnected youth, and to equip all young people with the skills to succeed in college, career, and life.

Here are three non-traditional approaches United Way is supporting to help creating opportunity for young people in our region:

College and Career Readiness: Many of the partner agencies funded by United Way tailor their programming to meet the unique needs of hard-to-reach young people in their community. College Bound Dorchester provides one-on-one coaching from college readiness advisors who are from the same community and have overcome similar challenges to build confidence and motivation from middle school through college graduation.

YouthBuild Lawrence provides vocational training, career development, support services, post-secondary education and/or job placement in meaningful employment, providing a “Personal Success Blueprint” for each participating youth. CTI YouthBuild of Greater Lowell provides education and employment training to prepare youth for careers in construction and healthcare, also developing Individualized Employment Plans to help them achieve their goals. These plans include support such as GED preparation, job shadowing and workshops, internships and case management.

In an innovative partnership with Big Picture Learning, Boston-based Fablevision last week premiered Navigating Our Way, a film to promote Career Technical Education and help elevate the trades as an equally valid choice for students. “We hope, over time, our work with Big Picture Learning will help shift the perception and value of all learning paths, including trades and highly skilled vocational and technical careers,” FableVision Co-founder and CEO Paul Reynolds said.

College Completion: A decade ago, a report commissioned by The Boston Foundation and prepared by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University showed only 35 percent of Boston Public School graduates who enrolled in college earned a degree within seven years.

That report catalyzed the launch of Success Boston, one of the initiatives of the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a partnership between United Way, the Boston Foundation, the City of Boston, Boston Public Schools (BPS), Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Catholic Charities and the Nellie Mae Foundation. Through Success Boston, coaches who are employed by nonprofits in the community follow BPS students through college and connect them with careers. Today, Success Boston reports that 52 percent of BPS graduates of the Class of 2011 completed a degree within six years.  

Research shows that 90% of low-income and minority students do not graduate from college on time. United Way’s Marian L. Heard Scholars defy this trend, with more than 81% earning a bachelor’s degree within four years. The Marian L. Heard Scholarship provides first-generation college students with up to $10,000 over the four years they attend college. In addition, scholarship recipients get their own “e-Coach,” a United Way volunteer who provides advice and support throughout their collegiate journey.

Pathway to Financial Stability: For the 1,900 youth ages 18-24 living in subsidized housing in the Boston area who are not in school or in work, the path to employment and a sustaining wage is elusive. With funding from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, United Way recently created Launch, a network of community-based partners which will create a coordinated system of providing outreach, connection and referrals, as well as education, training and job placements to youth living in state-subsidized housing in Boston, Chelsea, Revere, Everett, and Lynn.

The goal of Launch is to enroll 400 youth in services that increase employment readiness and/or lead to employment and enroll 40 of those young people in Year Up’s intensive training program with hands-on skill development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships and wrap-around support. United Way’s Launch partners include Roca, the Boston Private Industry Council, Chelsea CONNECT, Jewish Vocational Services and the Lynn Housing and Neighborhood Development.

The Road to Opportunity Initiative (ROI), a United Way partnership funded by State Street Foundation, ensures youth achieve educational success, complete job readiness programming, obtain and retain employment, and achieve short- and long-term financial goals. ROI builds on the trusted relationship established between youth workers and disconnected youth, by providing youth workers with professional development to deliver high quality coaching and financial capability services as seamlessly as possible for participating youth. ROI will build systems to measure and track educational and career outcomes for 200 youth, as well as financial outcomes such as prime credit scores, savings, debt reduction, and access to public benefits.

“We believe this work will provide all young people with the two foundations of better lives: financial opportunity and educational success,” Ausiello said. “Together, we can fight to ensure our opportunity youth not only graduate college- and career-ready, but also have the skills needed to earn enough to support themselves, manage their finances and build a future.”