By STEVEN NALLEY
Participants in Starkville’s Youth Employment Services program, also known as YES, began working with the city Friday to build work experience and prepare for today’s job market.
Stefanie Shackelford, city youth program coordinator and supervisor, said YES’s goals are to provide local youth ages 15-25 with an early employment opportunity, train and educate them for their future careers and give them community service experience. Their paid services will include recycling, litter control and landscaping and beautification of highways, historic buildings, facilities, structures and preservation or rehabilitation of historic markers.
“I think we’ve got a great group of kids this year; they’re very excited about working,” Shackelford said. “A lot of them have great leadership skills, which is what we need as well. There’s not going to be a lot of hand-holding in this process. We want them to step up and develop into the leaders they really are.”
Out of 140 applicants, Shackelford said only 40 were hired, and references and interviews were critical in the selection process. The work will be challenging, she said, often including outdoor jobs in the sweltering Mississippi sun, but it could be a starting point for those seeking other city jobs in the future, and it can be very rewarding. By investing themselves in the city, she said, the workers are also investing in themselves and their futures by developing a strong work ethic.
“It gives them something they can do so they can be productive with their time ... so they won’t get into any type of trouble over the summer,” Shackelford said. “I think it’s really going to give them the opportunity to reach out and seek those job opportunities they may not have thought about before, not (just the) careers they’re interested in.”
Shackelford said she believes the work will also give the youth a sense of ownership of their city when they see its beauty and know they are responsible for that beauty. Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said a similar motive drives him and his fellow city staff to do their jobs well.
“Everything we do, when we do it well, it makes Starkville — a place that’s more special to me than any place on earth — a better place,” Wiseman said. “I find that when you love something and you contribute your own hard effort to improving it, you end up loving it that much more. This is an opportunity for the participants in the youth summer work program to contribute their best efforts to improving Starkville. Hopefully, it will be an experience that culminates with them loving their hometown even more than they already do.”
Shackelford said YES is only in its second year, and last year it only had enough grant money from the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide career-building advice to youth. This time, she said, the city is working with a $42,000 Mississippi Department of Transportation grant, allowing the city to actually hire the youth. She said this has been her goal for the program since she came to Starkville, and she got the idea from writing the grant for a similar program in Birmingham, Ala.
Shackelford also said another group she oversees, the Starkville Mayor’s Youth Council, will be supervising the YES workers. The MYC will also identify speakers to address the YES group throughout the summer, and while the city plans to wrap up YES at the summer’s end, it can continue as late as Sept. 30.
“If we have some funds available and youth are really working well with our departments,” Shackelford said, “we may continue to keep them on until the end of September.”
Wiseman said he hopes to be able to keep YES at its current level and provide a city work program every summer.
“Without an external funding source, it’s very difficult financially for the city to take on a summer youth program,” Wiseman said. “So, this (grant) helps us fulfill a goal that’s important to us.”