Eel River employers investing in area youth; making it happen with the StepUp program

We've all gone through them - society's rites of passages, and while their purpose is to prepare young people for adult life, our modern rituals often fall short in providing meaningful work and training experiences for youth. As we have traditionally defined growing up as acquiring a driver's license and getting a high school diploma, young people entering the work force become aware that change is at hand and look back on how life has prepared them for their next big step. But more often than not, they come up against obstacles in getting a first job or training opportunity.

According to JoAnn Sapper, leader of a youth work program located on the campus of Fortuna Union High School, it's sometimes difficult to sell employers on job seekers that don't have some work experience by the time they're reached 18. As director of the StepUp program in the Eel River valley, Sapper explains that "there has been a lack of work experience for young people, and this can lead to a disconnect between youth and the world of work."

In 'Contemporary Youth Culture,' Anthony Roselli states that our society fails on several levels to engage youth in its activities and offerings, and adds that the disconnect actually works against all of those who are having difficulty adjusting to the evolving culture.

One sector hit especially hard in Humboldt County is the timber industry. Since its peak in the mid-1950s, it provided half of the county's private-sector employment. But according to a recent study done by the Humboldt County Workforce Investment Board, forestry and logging now make up around 10 percent of the county's payroll. As such, Humboldt County is reassessing where its at as it transitions through a dramatic and trying economic restructuring period. Naturally, all of these changes envince a deeper understanding of the trends in the evolving job market and lay a heavier responsibility on society to create new job opportunites for youth.

Rethinking where we've been and where we're going has become a familiar theme played out in the restructuring of many industries today. At an upcoming conference of the Pacific Logging Congress for instance, the theme was announced as "Embracing Change: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Headed?' (article in the Oct. 15 Humboldt Beacon).

According to Sapper, back in March 2005, representatives from local government and business put their heads together to develop fresh approaches to the problems facing youth. Within a year, the group developed a set of goals designed to bring employers and youth together to create win-win situations and thus, StepUp was born.

The name was originally coined by Terry Coltra, who in 2006, was the Chairman of the HCWIB Youth Council. Earlier programs similiar to, but not identical to StepUp go back to the 70s that include the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) and others. The StepUp program that JoAnn Sapper heads up on the Fortuna High School campus serves youth between the ages of 14 to 24 in the Eel River area.

John Crotty, Director of Fortuna Parks and Recreation has worked with StepUp interns in his department and gives Sapper two-thumbs-up. "As far as StepUp is concerned, it's a great program and JoAnn Sapper is the key to its success; she knows the participants' strengths and weaknesses, she researches the needs of the employers and places participants in situations where they can be successful." Crotty added that StepUp gives students the opportunity to learn real job skills and the responsibilities associated with employment.

Jose Quezada, who recently retired from the County of Humboldt said that the original vision of the program was to encourage local employers to commit to hiring youth. Keeping true to the original idea, Quezada networked with people like Carolyn Miller of the EDD, Terry Coltra, John Woolley - former 3rd District Supervisor, Doug Rasines - Chief of County of Humboldt Probation, Beverly Morgan Lewis - Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Jon Sapper - Assistant Supervisor of the Humboldt County Office of Education.

Quezada noted that more than a half-million dollars over a three-year period were used to match youth to jobs in Humboldt County. "This commitment of funds was made before stimulus monies, and are spelled out in a Memorandum of Understanding signed off by the Board of Supervisors," Quezada said.

StepUp applied for and received stimulus funds for its Summer program, receiving $114,000 for the Eel River Valley region. Carry-over funds will be earmarked for out-of-school youth through March 31, 2010. According to Sapper, the award was based on the strength of their proposal and a demonstrated ability to deliver a comprehensive youth program.

Youth in the Eel River Valley area enrolled in the Summer StepUp program were paid minimum wage and were each given 100 to 200 hours. The stimulus grant was an unusual but helpful source of funding. Normally speaking, StepUp's primary source of support comes from the Workforce Investment Act to fund their year-round programs. Employers who contract with StepUp don't pay into the program or contribute to workman's compensation. Instead, the County of Humboldt is the employer of record, so the businesses where students are placed don't pay any costs.

According to Sapper, the goal of StepUp is to invite employers to literally, STEP UP and provide jobs for youth and to match youth to appropriate job sites. In addition, StepUp provides the stuff that makes job seekers irresistable to employers. This includes developing resume writing skills, taking part in mock job interviews and improving personal presentation.

"And because many of the young people in our rural area are low income, interview clothes, job related work clothes, gas cards, and bus tickets will be available," Sapper indicated.

The local community has responded generously in support of StepUp and this summer, interns have worked for the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce, City of Fortuna, HealthSport Fortuna, City of RioDell, Hot Brew, Shaw Computers, Hydesville Community Church and others.

In one Summer success story, Sapper refers to a double-win situation for StepUp intern Jade Hudson and Joe Rivera, Fitness Director of HealthSport in Fortuna.

"He has been a great supervisor of the youth I've placed there and Jade is an excellent employee - she always goes the extra mile and deserves some recognition."

"StepUp is a great program!" said Joe Rivera. "It has created opportunity for the youth to get started. I see this as a start to develop good work ethics and working skills. The generation today hasn't had as much care, discipline and patience as generations from the past. Currently, the StepUp youth have been able to provide great effort and initiative here at HealthSport in Fortuna."

For youth 14 to 24, or businesses that are interested in getting hooked up with StepUp, call JoAnn Sapper at 725-4461, ext. 3120. Another great resource for job seekers is the Job Market, and they can be reached at 441-JOBS (5627) or 800-242-1353.

photos by Jose Quezada

1. Rob Sempell spent most of his Summer redesigning the web page for the City of Rio Dell.

2. Darlene Sampson, (left) guides the work of StepUp youth Patricia Landrum in the Fortuna Union High School library. Landrum helped get the library ready with displays, posters and a re-inventory of resources for Fall's incoming students.

3. Joe Rivera, Fitness Director at Fortuna's HealthSport coaches StepUp intern Jade Hudson. (Use this pic by all means)

4. Spencer Houseworth (left) and Dillion Grant add some redwood mulch on the 12th Street side of Fortuna Union High School.