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At-risk youths say YES to good jobs, education

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Sitiveni Otukolo and Steve Sanford are participants in the YES program.

Sitiveni Otukolo and Steve Sanford are participants in the YES program.

Amanda Lucidon, Deseret Morning News

Sitiveni Otukolo came into the YES program as a struggling high school student with troubled friends and no real vision for the future.

Germaine Reunodji got involved with YES shortly after leaving Chad, in Central Africa, for Utah. She wanted a better life, a job and an education.

Salt Lake County's Youth Employ-Ability Services was founded in 2000 to help at-risk youths find better jobs or education opportunities. The program is funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act and focuses on youths between the ages of 14 and 21.

Before Wednesday, YES program director Jude Schmid said, the program was "going along fairly smoothly" but lacked sufficient business involvement. And with 300 youths actively participating in the program at any given time, YES desperately needed businesses to engage.

"We really needed the business community to step up and be more involved in order to make direct connections and get our kids into some real opportunities, the kinds of opportunities only the business community can provide," Schmid said.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, the Salt Lake Chamber announced it will partner with YES to recruit businesses to participate and develop training programs to teach kids career skills and trades.

"Nothing is more central to the Salt Lake Chamber's mission and purpose than to champion community prosperity," said Scott Anderson, chairman of the chamber and president of Zions Bank.

"Business recognizes that many of Salt Lake's youths are not lacking potential," Anderson said. "We know they have within them great ability, if only they are given the opportunity to succeed. The YES program gives them that chance. . . . I believe in this program. It will make a difference to our businesses, it will make a difference in our communities, and most importantly, it will make a difference in the lives of our youth."

Lizzie Barlow, business development specialist at the chamber, said there are three businesses actively involved in placing YES participants, and another five or six have expressed interest.

Sysco Intermountain, one of the companies participating in YES, has several entry-level jobs available and opportunities for career advancement, said Sysco president Tom Kesteloot.

"Helping our at-risk youth transition to the work force is a great thing to participate in," Kesteloot said. "It helps reduce the cost associated to business and industry when our youth are not successful. It helps with morale at our company when they see that we're willing to step forward with real solutions for our at-risk youth. It helps us attract people to our industry, and then these people see that they have bright futures in front of them. They work hard and become the future leaders of our companies."

Otukolo, 19, utilized YES resources to re-focus on school. He graduated from high school and now attends Salt Lake Community College. He is expected to earn his associate's degree in the spring and hopes to study communications at the University of Utah.

Reunodji, 20, also attends SLCC, where she is studying business management. She hopes to use her education to develop opportunities in Chad. YES helped her find work at the Asian Association of Utah's refugee center, as well as funding for school.

"When I was younger, in Chad, we heard that if you have a diploma from America, you can go anywhere and work," Reunodji said.

After two years at SLCC, Reunodji said she's still a little overwhelmed at the opportunities before her.

"I want to be . . . so many things," she laughed. "I can't think of just one."

Schmid said YES hopes to enroll up to 400 more youths, focusing on high school seniors and recent graduates, or dropouts. The program includes Salt Lake and Tooele counties.

More information about YES program

For more information about Salt Lake County's Youth Employ-Ability Services, call 1-801-486-3100.

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com