At-risk youth shown hope for the future
Each weekday afternoon, the office at Cherokee FOCUS is filled with teens, up to 20 a day, who may have been discarded, given up on or pushed aside.
Many have faced poverty, abuse, and other tragic circumstances. But for the time spent in the meeting room of the 850-square-foot house in Holly Springs, they are encouraged, given hope and guidance for a better future.
The results are often life-changing.
The Cherokee Youth Works (CYW) began four years ago through a partnership of Cherokee FOCUS and funding from the Atlanta Regional Commission Workforce Investment Act. The CYW staff works to keep at-risk teenagers in high school, and help dropouts to obtain a GED and continue on to higher edu-
cation or enter the workforce. The program targets youth ages 16-21 who have barriers to earning a high school diploma. Their situations can range from low family income, foster care, and disabilities, to youth who have documented difficulties and need extra support and guidance.
Stacy Cooper, program manager, was a teenager herself when she realized she wanted to work with youth as a career. Her excitement and love for the students was evident as she shared a few success stories.
● Kelsey struggled through foster care, dropped out of high school, and had a baby at a young age. She was living with her grandmother when she joined the program, and was struggling to find transportation and childcare to do the things necessary to get her life back on track. Now Kelsey is in her second year at Chattahoochee Tech, majoring in criminal justice. She works at a childcare center, which covers her childcare needs and college costs, and she’s planning a wedding for some time next year. “I have achieved so many goals here,” she said.
● Alex’s goal is to attend a four-year school where he can learn to become an EMT and paramedic. “FOCUS is helping me reach that by staying on track and giving me the help I need to succeed.” Alex, raised by a single father, struggled with discipline issues and left high school. His father brought him to CYW for guidance and a community of support. Alex now has a job and is working to earn his GED.
● Lauren succumbed to peer influences, began making poor decisions and dropped out of school. She realized her mistakes, started attending counseling along with her mom, and came to CYW for guidance. She is now working in a pharmacy, thanks to a subsidized work program and a caring employer, and she is planning to enroll in a pharmacy tech program. Eventually, she may decide to become a pharmacist. “Kids like me have gone through a lot of things that have shot them down and they get into trouble, and this [CYW] helps them grow up.”
● Chris’ mom is an immigrant who, while going through chemotherapy, worked three jobs to care for her children. Chris has worked summer jobs and joint enrollment to speed up his education. He hopes to become a doctor, and, at 17, has earned a phlebotomy certificate and is looking for a job to help him through med school. He completed a leadership camp through the Rotary Club and recently shared his experiences with Canton Rotarians. For his diligence, he has been nominated for an award through the Atlanta Regional Workforce Board.
“To see students walk in our building feeling like a failure and walk out with hope that although they have made mistakes in the past, there is hope for a better future is such a fulfilling job,” said Cooper. “We try to show youth that there is still a path that can lead to success for them. It might take a little longer to get there, but we will be there to support them every step of the way.”
Field trips and working projects, in addition to classroom instruction, help the students see a world around them that they may not know exists. A visit to North Georgia Technical College opened their eyes to the possibility of attending college and living in a dorm. Many of the kids had never seen a dorm room. Cooper said the technical school is the only one in Georgia that offers on-campus housing.
At the Holly Springs fall festival, the Birds and Herbs exhibit featured birdhouses built and herbs raised by the students, who learned the benefits and satisfaction of creating products, pricing and selling them.
Cooper and CYW co-worker Kathy Garrett rely on support from individuals, business owners and benefactors in the community.
“During a two year period when CYW had funding to operate a summer jobs program, more than 50 local businesses provided work for more than 200 youth,” according to Sonia Carruthers, Executive Director and CEO of Cherokee FOCUS.
“These partners are still a vital part of the CYW work readiness division and our students benefit greatly from classes and seminars taught by members of the business community including, Best Buy, Chick-fil-A Canton Marketplace, T.J. Maxx, Kohl’s, Bank of America in Towne Lake, and Cherokee YMCA. Hearing directly from local employers truly makes an impact on them.”
Cherokee FOCUS also offers the Gift Connection, a chance to donate GED testing fees, college entrance fees, childcare donations, and other basics to help the youth reach their goals.
“These gifts will make sure these youth don’t become statistics and do become productive members of our community,” said Carruthers.
For details, see the ad on page 13 or visit www.cherokeefocus.org