By Lauren E. Williams, Special to The AFRO

“To rich kids, social capital is an airbag. Meaning if they get in trouble, or possibly have a run in with the law, they have ways to get out of it and carry on with their lives. Our kids don’t have these air bags; they lack the social capital to help them find jobs and to find a different, better way of life.” – Edward DeJesus

Edward DeJesus is the Lead Project Consultant for Opportunity Connections Summer, D.C.’s Youth Advocacy Program (YAP) summer workplace initiative. Held in partnership with the district’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), the Opportunity Connections Summer program kicked off their six-week program on July 10 at the D.C. YAP Office in Northeast.

From left: TaKeisha, 18, Opportunity Summer program participant, Kecia Barnes, DYRS credible messenger, and Tavon Harris, YAP Opportunity Summer program coordinator. (Courtesy Photo)

“The lack of justice-involved youth in workforce development programs across the country is what started this project,” DeJesus told the AFRO.  “Our programs help youth learn about the world of work by giving them access to people in the world of work. This builds their social capital.”

More than 50 youth somehow involved in D.C.’s criminal justice system, attended the program’s kick-off. Participants were diverse spanning the ages of 13-18, male and female, and from some of D.C.’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The program included a meeting with a program volunteer to discuss the workplace and guided assignments with DYRS employees who serve as mentors for participants. Throughout the program, justice-involved youth will learn about six workplace areas and industries, including retail, construction, human services and entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, while youth participation and interest is high, that of D.C. business owners and career professionals to serve as opportunity advisors for the program is low.

“Many D.C. business owners and professionals signed up to participate but not all showed up,” said DeJesus. “We need to continue the find ways to engage D.C.’s labor market with our youth.”

YAP partners with area juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health, intellectual and developmental disability, autism, public health, educational, substance abuse, workforce development and other local agencies. With a policy of never turning away or kicking anyone out of its programs, YAP often supports individuals who have nowhere else to go.

Since 1975, YAP has proven to be a successful alternative to prison or other out-of-home placement for D.C. and Maryland-area youth and vulnerable adults each year. In fact, according to a D.C. YAP spokesperson, after participating in the program from December 2016 to December 2017, the percentage of justice involved youth dropped from 92 percent to 31 percent by the end of the program. And, 100 percent of program participants weren’t adjudicated delinquent on a felony charge while in the program during the same year.

While Opportunity Summer is just one part of YAP’s programming, it is an integral one.

“Opportunity Summer is more than a summer job,” says the YAP Program. “We want to expand young people’s vision of what is possible and teach them the skills that can lead them to brighter horizons.”