Summer youth program provided teens with job skills, exposure to local businesses and nonprofits

FLINT, Michigan -- Each summer, the Education & Talent division of the Flint and Genesee Group helps hundreds of teens and young adults in Genesee County find employment through the Summer Youth Initiative

Students work in a variety of positions for businesses and nonprofit organizations and Flint and surrounding communities. In the process, they pick up vital job skills and, often, contribute to projects and initiatives in Flint that help residents and benefit the entire community.

Flintside caught up with James Avery, program director of Education & Talent at Flint & Genesee Group, to ask about the impact of the program, how it helps teens, challenges managing it through the pandemic, and more, during SYI’s summer wrap-up party downtown Flint at Brush Park earlier this month. 

Flintside: Every year, the SYI program grows and you’ve worked with so many businesses and organizations over the years. What sort of experience does it give the kids who participate?

Avery: “This gives them access to community partners that they wouldn’t otherwise have. They’re able to help with not only nonprofits, but also with community beautifications. Collaborative efforts with all of our (Genesee County) school districts are included in the effort, so it brings kids together on that front. At the end of the day, it’s about just understanding the great things we have here and teaching them about taking ownership of their community.”

Flintside: Running this program the last two summers during the pandemic, what challenges have you had to overcome to still find opportunities for kids, especially when many of them maybe haven’t even been in school face-to-face?

Avery: “It posed some challenges for us in terms of participating. A lot of students in the program were virtual, so all of our programs were virtual except for the SYI program. Some of them were a little rusty as far as getting acclimated to being in person again, but once they started, they marvel at being able to do something in person again that’s safe. 

“The last year, we had safety protocols in place with masks and social distancing, but we were still able to accomplish our work. We had roughly 200 students this year, and whenever I’d go out and make my visits, they all say, ‘Thank you for keeping the program going.’”

Flintside: When you have kids who start in the program at a younger age in the program, and then you kind of see the progression in their skills  and confidence over the years, how rewarding is that?

Avery: “That’s what we’re about, the growth. We ask our community partners to help develop that, the character growth and employability growth. When I see a 14-year-old after four years, they start out kind of like a deer in headlights, learning how to work. By the time they’re 18, they’re in charge, they’re the ones telling the others what they’re supposed to be doing. They almost grow into an ambassadorship and start to guide the other students. You can see that pride in being an experienced pro. It marvels me to see that growth.”

Flintside: For people interested in the program or getting their kids involved next summer, what is the best way to get more information?

Avery: “SYI students have to have TeenQuest, which is offered at most of our high schools in Genesee County. They can go to our website and see our education piece to sign up for one of four sessions during the high school year. Once they’ve accomplished that TeenQuest, that’s the only time they have to take it. If they take it as a ninth grader, they’re good and can work (in SYI) the next four years.”

Flintside: Anything you’d like to add about the program?

Avery: “We’re just thankful for the kids, to see them in a celebratory fashion. We’ve had the strife of the pandemic and the unsureness of our environment, but to see them just in a fun environment relaxing and having fun, that does me well.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.