With summer quickly approaching, many eager teens began their search for employment with the One City Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which was launched on Feb. 25. As hundreds of the District’s youth and parents flowed inside the Department of Employment Services (DOES) building to attend the Midnight Madness kick-off event, bright smiles and optimism dawned on many faces.

SYEP was established to prepare and provide essential work experience for 12,000 District youth, ages 14 to 21. Midnight Madness, the first of several events held throughout the city, was created to assist with the application process, mainly providing computers for those without Internet access as well as DOES staff to assist. “We didn’t want the lack of Internet access to keep people from applying to the program. We kept it open until midnight as a convenience to working parents,” agency spokeswoman Dy Brown said.

Many teens came prepared with the required documentation, including a Social Security card, proof of residency and valid e-mail address. “The children seem to be getting smarter this year. Many have already brought some of their required paperwork,” Brown said.

The event was organized to ensure a smooth and quick transaction, having the applicants in-and-out in as little as 20 minutes. The program opened 3:15 p.m. Feb. 25 and by 6 p.m. over 4,500 had already applied, with many still arriving. At AFRO press time, Brown said DOES had received 12,000 applications, but she encouraged youth to continue submitting their applications since there is a waiting list.

The program was initially established by former Mayor Marion Barry. This year Mayor Vincent Gray implemented critical changes with hopes of enhancing and enriching the program. The most notable change is that the program will be smaller and tailored more to the individual needs of youth. “We cut the participant level to 12,000 to make sure everyone is getting the most out of the program … in order to nurture and mentor,” Brown said.

In addition, youth will be required to apply for the program instead of simply registering. The new application process includes using the online application portal, preparing a résumé, completing an online orientation course as well as in-person soft skills training. SYEP has also partnered with Bank One DC to provide the students with free checking accounts.

With youth unemployment rates on the rise nationally – doubling from the two previous summers – District youth are not only competing among themselves for employment but also with college graduates seeking the same entry-level positions. Mayor Gray and his officials say the program’s changes will better equip the District’s youth so they have an advantage. “We believe these changes will give vital essentials for the workplace as well as in life … something they can take with them in the future ,” said Brown, “Statistics show that those prepared while they are younger are more successful in the future.”

Former participants speak highly of the program. “It’s given me a lot of work experience by placing me in different jobs each year,” said 18-year-old Darrias Beverly, a third-year participant.

Even those new to the program have high hopes and expectations. “This is my first year but I’ve heard good things about it …. We’ll see how it goes,” said Deidre Hargler, who brought her 14-year-old daughter to apply.

Some are unsure about the program changes. “I heard they were making changes which I don’t like. It’s complicating things and they are keeping kids from getting a job. That’s not good,” said Diane Worlock, whose son has been in the program for two years. “These kids need jobs…keeps them out of trouble.”