ServiceWorks: At the Heart of Building Career Pathways for Opportunity Youth

This blog originally appeared on EqualMeasure.org, which serves as national evaluator of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative. Pathways to Progress is a three-year, $50 million commitment to help 100,000 low-income youth — ages 16 to 24 — develop the workplace skills and leadership experience necessary to compete in a 21st century economy. In this Equal Measure Guest Blog post, Jason Meucci — Vice President of Communications for Programs at Points of Light — describes how people, and their passion for youth development and service learning, are the centerpiece of the ServiceWorks program.

When your mission involves service learning as a means to help thousands of low-to-moderate income young people grow into leaders, your program needs a healthy combination of brains and heart.

And while Points of Light supplies the academic curriculum that these “Opportunity Youth” use to develop skills to prepare for college and careers, it’s the Service Scholars themselves, the AmeriCorps VISTAs that lead them, and the volunteers (many of whom are Citi employees) that coach them who are the heart of ServiceWorks.

To get a sense of that heart, consider our work in St. Louis, a heartland community long-burdened by economic inequality. After learning some lessons in our first program year, we streamlined our curriculum to a five-week model. This resulted in higher participation, and most importantly, higher Scholar retention and graduation rates.

With the next round of cohorts soon to begin, we recently graduated almost 1,300 Scholars in the 10 cities where we operate. And ServiceWorks St. Louis was host to more than 130 of those graduates. JessiLee Smithee is among the ServiceWorks graduates. A first-generation college student, whose mother didn’t make it past 8th grade, she is so inspired by the service she performed, and connections made through ServiceWorks, that she wants to continue in the program as a cohort facilitator.

“I’m definitely going to keep what I’ve learned from ServiceWorks, and take it to my four-year college and into my career. I LOVE this program.”

There are stories of Service Scholars having transformative experiences all around the country. In Los Angeles, you’ll find Grace Gonzalez. Once involved in gangs, through ServiceWorks she volunteered at a National Make a Difference Day event, cleaning the park where she used to participate in gang activity. While there, she spoke to some of the youth hanging out at the park about changing their lives.

In the Washington, DC area, there’s 21-year-old Sherman Davis. Before ServiceWorks, he hadn’t put much thought into his goals. At the start of his cohort, he was very shy, soft-spoken, and scared about not knowing his next steps in life. Now he has developed a confidence, a voice, and a plan to go to college, so he can use his videography skills to make an impact on the world.

Currently in 10 cities, we expanded in 2015 to 15 host sites, or partner organizations that share our mission to provide at-risk youth a better way forward. And we’re expecting to grow the total number of youth engaged with our programming by more than 25%.

That number does not include the thousands more young people we plan to serve via the latest enhancement to our program: a free, interactive ServiceWorks Online curriculum that youth and youth-serving organizations can access anywhere. This engaging digital model is designed to help young people think about their skills and passions, and identify ways to connect and implement those within their community through service projects.

What’s more, in January 2016, we’re rolling out a new one-day skill-building “Bootcamp” that will run in multiple cities in conjunction with MLK National Day of Service events. An astonishing 700 young people, all of them new to ServiceWorks, are expected go through the training, participate in a service project — and hopefully for some — continue with ServiceWorks, either through the online curriculum or in-person cohorts.

None of this would be possible without our impassioned VISTAs from the Corporation for National and Community Service. In St. Louis, one of those VISTAs is Lindsay Peters, who is more than eager to give back to the city she says raised her. She has seen Scholars come out of their shells, form communication and project management skills, and ultimately, develop as leaders.

“We need passionate people. We need leaders,” says Peters. “ServiceWorks is going to provide you an opportunity to form yourself, to grow, to expand your knowledge about different topics. You’ll see what’s going on in your community and have concrete ways to make an impact.”

When speaking of her teammates at ServiceWorks St. Louis, Lindsay expresses a sentiment that’s no doubt shared among the more than 50 VISTAs leading our program around the country. “We care so much about the work we do. And we’re all so committed to seeing this program succeed, seeing our scholars succeed. And that’s really inspirational.”

Some might call it heart.

Jason Meucci is Vice President of Communications for Programs at Points of Light.

- See more at: http://www.equalmeasure.org/ideas/impactblog/serviceworks-at-the-heart-of-building-career-pathways-for-opportunity-youth/#sthash.b77fjqwR.dpuf