LEAD program empowers young people of color


LEAD program members visit with professionals like Denise Garcia at the Grand Rapids Water Filtration Plant. Courtesy Shannon Harris

The city of Grand Rapids is fortifying young people for the workforce.

Over 335 young people, 87% of which are people of color, in Grand Rapids have graduated from the Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction program, and it has provided them jobs in various industries, such as finance, legal, education, construction and media professions, courtesy of the Mayor’s 100 businesses campaign.

Lynn Heemstra, executive director of Our Community’s Children, said the program is paving the way for long-term employment in the city and connecting persons of color to corporations and businesses that are looking for a diverse workforce.

Our Community’s Children, which is a partnership between the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools and community partners, created the LEAD program. It is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Heemstra said there are zones in the city where some of those residents may be eligible for an $800 training stipend that they can use for their personal needs.

The program is designed to help young people between the ages of 15 and 24 prepare for employment through training, workshops for résumé and cover letter writing, interviewing, financial literacy and take field trips among other activities that are facilitated by professionals. There are two cohorts, one in the spring and the other in the summer. Each student enrolled in the program must complete a total of 90 hours.

“It is a research-based curriculum that has been put together,” Heemstra said. “We have lots of presenters and speakers, and they are from a variety of fields and careers. We have consultants who do leadership trainings, in which each student take a DISC personality test so that they understand what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. We have people from (different) professions come in and talk about résumé building, we have actors come in to talk about confidence building, we have social workers come in to talk about stress management. We have a variety of experts come in.”

For field trips, Shannon Harris, program coordinator at OCC, said students visit some of the Mayor’s 100 businesses.

Some of the businesses that are a part of the Mayor’s 100 businesses include the 61st District Court, Amway Hotel Corporation, Cascade Engineering, WMCAT, city of Grand Rapids, Fifth Third Bank, Spectrum Health, Rockford Construction, Varnum LLP, Grand Rapids Public Schools and SeyferthPR.

“(We visit) the businesses so (students) can hear directly from employers and hear about what they seek in an employee,” Harris said. “I think it is a unique experience because it is unlike any other youth employment program in town because not only do they have to earn a job but they are also able to build on their social capital because, in certain industries, it is who you know. So, we are trying to help them build that.”

After students have graduated from the program, there is a job fair for the students with employers of Mayor’s 100 businesses. So far, Harris said they have 84 employers and they are aiming for 100.

“The young people not only have to go through the program successfully, but they have to go through the same pre-employment process, like any other candidate for employment,” Harris said. “So, they have to fill out an application at the job fair, interview with our employers in the Mayor’s 100 and then the employers have the opportunity after they’ve interviewed the students … to hire them.”

Heemstra said employers must offer at least 240 employment hours.

SeyferthPR, which is a public relations agency, has been a part of Mayor’s 100 businesses since it started. The president of the agency, Ginny Seyferth, said this year her company could be hiring its 20th student.

“We haven’t hired this year yet, but every year, we’ve (hired) two to three per year since the development of the program,” she said. “Some of those over the years have come back and interned with us after they’re (in) college.”

Once the students are hired to work at the agency, Natasha Alvarez, account executive at SeyferthPR, said the students get to learn everything from basic level phone and computer skills, including Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and managing files.

“They really get exposed to everything like the event management side of some of the events that we put on,” she said. “They get to see the process from start to finish, what an event looks like, what we do to make it happen. They also get to see what we do in regard to social media. That is really popular with the students, and they get to see what we do for clients in regard to social posts. So, they get exposed to everything.”

Harris said Mayor’s 100 businesses was initially started by former Mayor George Heartwell in 2010, and at that time, it was known as the Mayor’s 50 businesses. It was an effort to implore businesses to hire young people.

“We think it is a great program, and quite frankly, we encourage all employers to take one or two (students) a year,” Seyferth said. “It is also a way for them to see the city they don’t see. Often times, the kids grow up in tougher areas and they only know about the 10-block area that they grow up in. So, (it) is a huge benefit that we don’t really think about it, but it allows them to see the city, their city, through some really great eyes, and it allows them to see people they look up to (speak) a lot of their city.”

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