A youth oriented group, Youth Opportunity (YO!) Baltimore, helps serve out-of-school youth and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 at two youth-friendly centers in East and West Baltimore.  The program helps members build important life skills and help young people increase their wage earnings and educational attainment.

YO! Baltimore was founded in 2000 is operated by the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Employment Development’s Youth Services division.  The program is funded by the Mayor and Baltimore City Council, and works in partnership with the Baltimore City Department of Juvenile Services, Baltimore City Public Schools, Civic Works, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Adolescent Health, and Sinai Hospital.

For many students, YO! Baltimore gives them an alternative educational route after facing challenges in traditional classroom settings, and it also gives many of the students second chances.

Many of the teenagers and people in their 20s who come to the organization for assistance face major challenges.  Three-quarters of the members left high school without finishing, another quarter of them have children, some have criminal records, some are in foster care, some are homeless.

The program helps students receive their high school diploma and mentors them to become valuable assets in the city’s workforce, because even for young adults without such difficulties, it’s hard to find a job.

Ernest Dorsey, assistant director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development who leads the Youth Services division, commented on the impact the program has made on many of the member’s lives.

“There are not many large programs in Baltimore City that are focusing on kids who are out of school and out of the workplace. But we are working with 700-800 young people a year,” said Dorsey.  “The mayor has realized that that is an important population, and the mayor and city council actually allocated funding to support this project once the U.S. Department of Labor funds ended.”

Lois Mitchell, acting program director at YO! Eastside Center, says it is “gratifying to see young people that want to make a change in their lives” and that it is great the program can “help them and see them realize their hopes and dreams.”

Since being founded, YO! has provided academic, career/job training, advocacy, mentoring, health and social support services to more than 7,000 out-of-school, out-of-work city youth.

“It’s really preparing young people for future workforce, giving them that exposure that perhaps they did not get before they left school,” Dorsey said. “We work with young people who have graduated, but haven’t made that next step to employment or post-secondary and so they are still searching for what they want to do.  We certainly help them try to identify that particular area as well.”

Youth Opportunity Baltimore hosted a special graduation event in June for its 2014 class of 93 young adults. Fifty-seven of the students graduated from YO! Academy, which is an alternative high school that operates in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools.  The other 36 students earned their Maryland high school diplomas through the city’s two YO! Baltimore centers in East and West Baltimore.  The ceremony was held at Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall, and Shina Parker, a local entrepreneur and CEO, delivered the keynote address.

Lois Mitchell said many alumni from the YO! program come back every day to help those who are in the program now.  She has even witnessed people who were in the program 10-12 years ago coming back to help. She says it helps to give current students a model of what they can be by alumni returning and saying, “I was here and this is where I am now.”

This summer, YO! members are participating in multiple workforce readiness activities and projects, as they continue to work towards earning their GED. One of the job readiness activities is the Sherwin-Williams Certified Renovators Training, which was provided at no cost by Sherwin-Williams. This training program teaches its participants proper painting techniques and gives them skills to find work with painting contractors.

The week-long session covers how to prepare an area for painting, how to determine how much and what kind of materials are needed, proper painting techniques, dressing for the job, properly cleaning the work area, along with other topics. Participants receive hands-on experience by completing a painting project at the Westside YO! Center, and all YO! members who complete the training will receive an EPA certification in lead paint usage and removal. This is the third year that Sherwin-Williams has partnered with YO! Baltimore to offer this training to YO! members.