Giving Thought: Nonprofit and business partnerships benefit local youth

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

The hurdles on the road to adulthood are many, but one of the hardest to clear can be the transition from the classroom to the working world.

Our schools are equipped to guide students as they develop plans to continue education after high school. However, many don’t have the resources to help students explore career options before deciding to invest in postsecondary education. Area businesses and nonprofits have long identified this career exploration gap and are working together to address it.

According to Seth Cole, chief operating officer of Gallegos Corporation, while educators across Colorado are seeking to pair teens with meaningful careers, most of these strategies are still bogged down in theory. There is a welcome exception, he added.

“Youthentity and its Career Academy have broken through the theory stage and are not only educating young people,” Cole said. “They are matching the students with local businesses to allow the students to truly see what opportunities are available.”

Youthentity is a local nonprofit that helps acquaint students in middle and high school with the working world and enables them to stay engaged with school, explore careers and identify a postsecondary pathway to get them there. Part of what makes Youthentity effective is its close working relationships with actual employers who help to teach and model real-world, professional skills.

This fall in the Roaring Fork School District high schools — Basalt, Roaring Fork and Glenwood Springs — Youthentity will debut its Career Academy and Youthentity University, a pair of programs that run in tandem during school hours, provide credits toward graduation and run through the entire academic year.

For years, Youthentity has provided programs that gave students a taste of the professional world and taught job-related skills including financial literacy. This is the first time, however, that the Carbondale-based nonprofit has worked hand-in-glove with a school district to offer classes five days per week, during school hours and all year long.

Executive Director Kirsten McDaniel said two career academies are available for the coming school year. One specializes in the construction world, the other hospitality. Both offer opportunities for high school students to meet and learn from industry professionals; many of the construction classes will take place at the offices of Gould Construction near Glenwood Springs.

“These kids will get a thorough introduction to all the pieces of the industry,” McDaniel said. “Until you can try something on for size, how do you know if you really like it? How do you know if you’re good at it? With all of our programs, I try to enable kids to discover what they’re good at, in a way that might not be apparent in an academic setting.”

The hospitality program will teach skills specific to that industry — culinary arts, restaurant management, hotels and lodging — and the construction program will focus on subjects like structural design, carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical work. Participants in the hospitality program receive a chef’s hat and other clothing for the kitchen, while construction students receive a pair of work boots.

“Career Academy brings together real-world experiential learning opportunities with hands-on projects delivered by industry professionals,” said Peter Barclay, director of the program. “Students will have mentors in their career field of interest.”

But alongside these industry-specific benefits, both programs will also include Youthentity University, an online platform that aims to cultivate general employability skills — effective communication, business etiquette, teamwork and so forth.

Youthentity’s mission includes investing in local kids and developing a strong, competent workforce. And the creation of the Career Academy programs represents an intentional investment by local businesses and individual professionals in the region’s youth.

The nonprofit’s cost-per-student in the hospitality program is $7,000, but the cost for families who sign up for this nine-month immersion in a local industry is between $100 and $200. Youthentity provides bus passes for all students who need transportation from their school to the off-campus classes.

“It’s important for kids to understand that the community is really behind them,” said Mark Gould Jr. of Gould Construction. “We want them to succeed.”

Youthentity is now building a roster of alumni to support its programs in a variety of ways, from monetary donations to coaching and mentoring. Former Youthentity participant Miriam Flores, now the assistant controller at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, said Youthentity literally launched her professional life.

“No matter where I go, I will never forget where it all started,” she said. “Youthentity will always have a special place in my heart. It was the foundation to my career.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.