Portland program provides low-income teens with summer jobs

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PORTLAND — Helping low-income youth find meaningful summer work that will help them build career skills is the goal of a new program focused on the city’s three public high schools.

Sponsored by the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, and Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, the Gateway to Opportunity program is providing paid internships to 45 students this summer.

The students will work 20 hours a week for six weeks at eight nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine and the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Nikki Williams, project director of Gateway to Opportunity, said the idea is to give the students access to opportunities and resources they typically wouldn’t receive.

In addition to providing paid summer work – all the interns will earn $10.68 an hour – the students will also receive mentoring and support from students at USM, who are on hand at every job site to provide guidance.

Williams said the nonprofits all have specific projects they would like the students to complete over the course of the summer. Most of them are hands-on and place the students in the community.

“The program helps build confidence, lets the teens earn a wage and provides community engagement that makes a difference and adds value to the communities being served,” Williams said.

“We are also trying to make the connection between work and getting an education. (So) this is not just any summer job. This is more career-focused,” she added. “The idea is for the students to develop skills and reach an end goal, all while receiving support and guidance.”

“All the projects are youth-driven,” Williams said, “while the USM students are on hand to guide the planning and completion” of each assignment.

Gateway to Opportunity started last year with a pilot program funded in large part by the John T. Gorman Foundation, according to Williams. Last summer there were 22 students from Portland who took part and four of them have returned.

This year, Williams said, the hope was to double the participation. In coming years she hopes to expand the program to other cities in Maine such as South Portland and Lewiston.

In order to qualify for an internship with Gateway to Opportunity, Williams said, students and their families must qualify for free or reduced lunch or other similar assistance programs.

In addition to being paid for their work, the interns are also eligible to receive a course credit from their high school and will have the chance to open a bank account and learn about saving and money management.

Staff from Norway Savings Bank will provide money management instruction and the bank has also made a donation of $7,500 to help support the Gateway to Opportunity program, according to Karen Hakala, the bank’s senior vice president of marketing.

Hakala said Norway Savings, which has three branches in Portland, has invested in the Gateway to Opportunity program because it “aligns well (with) our mission to reinvest in our communities.”

She also said it’s important for the bank to support the program because, “the participants will be much better prepared to enter the workforce or to pursue post-secondary education. (And), we hope some students will use their earnings to save up for the next phase of their lives, either pursuing higher education, starting their own businesses, or supporting other major milestones, like the down payment on a car or a rent deposit.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Some of the student interns from last year’s pilot Gateway to Opportunity program. The goal of the program is to provide meaningful summer work to low-income teens from Portland’s three public high schools.