High school students in a small, rural community in the Pacific Northwest have secured their first jobs, graduated from high school and are heading to college with support from a community program called YouthFirst led by Winlock (Washington) United Methodist Church.
Program results are amazing students and school officials. When the program launched in autumn 2014 with 14 students, none had ever had a job or knew how to apply for one. At the end of the year, all had gained work experience through internships. Local businesses – a grocery store, a café, an auto parts store, an auction house and an accounting firm – hired 11 of the participants.
The students also gained a new understanding of how much a congregation can care about them. Youth realize their lives can be different with the help of advocates.
For the aging congregation in an economically depressed community, YouthFirst has been a way to reach out and help build a healthy community. It also has welcomed youth into the church and given them an expanded understanding of what service means.
Each month, high school students participating in YouthFirst workshops fill the church fellowship hall. Church members serve pizza and cheeseburgers from the church kitchen. They also share about their own careers.
Winlock High School Principal Brian Maley called YouthFirst the best thing to happen to the school in the past year. It is also the most important initiative to move forward in 2015-16, he says.
YouthFirst is a partnership of Winlock Church, a state nonprofit called Partners in Careers, local businesses and the school district.
In addition to providing a meeting space, food and mentors, Winlock Church contributes funds provided by a bequest from a community member. The congregation committed to providing about $8,000 annually for two years to seed the program.
Winlock High School graduate Chelsea Arnett, now a graduate student at Washington State University, coordinates YouthFirst Winlock. She said some of the youth in the program have struggled to balance school and their families' need for them to care for siblings. Some have experienced homelessness, lost parents, been affected by drugs and run away from home. This program, Arnett said, has been a constant source of support and hope that their lives can be different.
Arnett doubts students would find employment or be equipped for life's next steps without the YouthFirst experience. They have found belief in themselves and community with one another, she said.
Rising senior Katrina Rodriguez grew up in a family with a history of illness. As a result, she has a desire to enter the medical field. YouthFirst introduced her to a mentor who is a nurse anesthesiologist. Rodriguez has been encouraged to pursue that career through YouthFirst.
"It's been about being part of something," Rodriguez says of the program. When her YouthFirst group brought Christmas to a shelter for people who were homeless, she recalls, "I felt blessed."
Arnett says working in YouthFirst reawakened her own faith. Before, she would pray and wonder, "Who am I praying to and what if nobody is listening?" The program, she says, has too many positive coincidences not to believe a higher power is at work. Most amazing, she says, is that it started in a church.