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Students share their job experiences from the Work Ready program

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Derricka Harvey just entered her senior year of high school after spending the summer earning money facilitating science workshops for middle school students at the Franklin Institute.

“I’m a people person,” she said and explained that the experience taught her that she wants to find work helping people in Philadelphia communities.

But Harvey did not always think of herself as a people person, and discovering this may have been the most valuable thing she got from her experience. She started as a student in the summer science workshops when she was in middle school, later volunteering, and ultimately getting hired to teach the workshops through Work Ready Philadelphia.

She taught a shy student from the Caribbean who, much like Harvey herself when she was younger, didn’t want to participate. But she continually encouraged him to make friends, and four weeks later, “he was running around outside with everybody else!”

“It’s OK to open up and show yourself to other people,” said Harvey, with a smile and energetic hand gestures, adding that it was a lesson she had to learn herself.

The workshops are staffed by high school employees through Work Ready Philadelphia, a program that just completed its 15th summer matching students with meaningful work around the city. It’s part of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN).

Since its creation in 1999, PYN has used more than $500 million to create a network of community organizations that make up what it calls a “coordinated youth service system.” Another prominent service, for example, is Project U-Turn, which helps high school dropouts earn their diplomas and has contributed to the 23-point increase in Philadelphia’s high school graduation rate over the last decade.

Work Ready employed almost 7,000 students over the summer, with an ambitious goal of raising that number to 16,000 by 2020. Their biggest push is the six-week program they offer over the summer to students like Harvey who work 20 hours each week for one of 50 organizations offering jobs at more than 900 locations.

Since its inception in 2003, Work Ready has paid $70 million in wages to teenage students.

Harvey’s job was provided by the Urban Affairs Coalition, which runs the free science workshops for middle-schoolers at the Franklin Institute. Other providers include the Free Library of Philadelphia, Drexel University, the AFL-CIO, Congresso de Latinos Unidos, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Wooden Boat Factory.

“Young people are valuable and worthy of every investment we make,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president of the Philadelphia Youth Network.

“We make sure young people are learning every day how skilled they are.”

Working on the water

This was the fourth summer that Work Ready placed students in jobs at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, which has students building wooden rowboats and sailboats from scratch.

Located on the shore of the Delaware River north of Center City, the six-week program has multiple components, which students can alternate between based on their interests. Aside from building boats, the factory runs a sailing summer camp for middle school students, where the teenagers hired by Work Ready spend their days teaching youngsters how to operate the small sailboats built by students in the boat-building workshop. Another component is environmental science, where students learn how to test water for pH levels and more.

“The water’s actually really healthy,” said a student river guide named Pineapple about the neutral pH level.

An adult instructor spent the afternoon taking individual students out in Artemis — the brand new two-person rowboat they had just finished building. This was a different style and construction than the other larger boats, and their instructor gave each student a lesson on how to row it.

Another group of students stood around an upside-down boat frame. They explained to visitors how they used the frame as a base to shape the boat while they fit all the wooden slats together, eventually creating the boat being rowed out onto the river, leaving the upturned frame that gave it shape behind on the shore. They decided on the name Artemis by voting.

They all agreed that fitting the slats and building the hull was fun, although the final step of sanding it down was grueling on their arms. But they got it done, having come so far already.

Brett Hart, executive director of the program, said a major component is simply having adults build “supportive relationships with young adults.” He also hopes to “develop the ability in a young person to see constructive feedback as an opportunity and not a threat.”

“We learn how to work together and find solutions when things get tough,” said Pineapple. “When you’re with a small group of people for a long period of time, you really have to depend on each other.”

Pineapple was part of a group of students who gave guided tours of the river using the boats. Another river guide, George, said that all the trash he sees makes him wonder how safe the water is, despite the neutral pH levels.

“Look at the chemicals you use in soaps,” said George, explaining his worries. “It all ends up in the runoff, which ends up in the river.”

“Before I joined, I thought I was the only one who cared about the water and our rivers,” said Casey, another river guide.

Casey took a boat out to explore the river and give visitors a taste of a guided tour, which involves learning to row as a team. Students instructed passengers on how to fit an oar lock and position their oar within it. She sat in the back of the boat, facing forward in the “coxswain” position, both navigating and calling out directions to the rowers, who faced backward.

“One, two, row! One, two, row!” she called out to get the boat moving, and when it was time to make a turn, she directed the rowers by calls of “starboard side, row!” or “port side, row!” which required an explanation of nautical terms and the proper ways to refer to different parts of the boat.

She took the group out to Dead Rat Cove, a nook in the shoreline near a sewer drain that floods with runoff after every storm. Periodically, the runoff includes dead rats, but mostly it consists of trash washed out of the sewer system.

“All the water flushes out the pollution and everything else that’s in there,” explained Jason, another student tour guide.

“It’s crazy the kind of trash that ends up in our water,” Pineapple said. “We can always reuse water bottles instead of just throwing them away.”

As the boat headed back to the dock, the river behind Casey was filled with sailboats and rowboats cutting back and forth across the water, students smiling and laughing to calls of “one, two, row!”

Supporting workshops

Students facilitating science workshops for the Urban Affairs Coalition at the Franklin Institute had a very different day.

One group of students ran a morning class from 9 to noon, while another group ran an afternoon workshop from noon to 4. A third group worked as support staff, gathering supplies and assisting the students who were busy teaching.

Darian Woodard was new to the program, so he worked in the group of students providing support to the workshops. His primary responsibility was organizing the classroom supplies so they would be ready for each session.

“I just love organizing stuff and getting to make sure everything’s ready,” said Woodard, adding that he preferred it to the days that he had to fill in for the workshop facilitators. He said that he wants to come back to work next summer regardless of what they have him doing.

“I like being downtown, and also the museum is free for us.”

This year the theme for the workshops was “habitat,” for both humans and animals. Students studied a wide range of architecture, from ancient Japanese to modern American, before working with the middle school students to design living spaces out of Legos based on the various types of architecture. The Franklin Institute plans to create models based on their designs to be used in the museum’s STEM exhibit.

On top of all that, the staff is managed by students who have been promoted from the ranks of the workshop facilitators.

Mena Green worked as the head of personnel. Her job was to supervise the other students, “making sure every employee is on task,” she said.

“Before I joined this program, I wanted to be a lawyer, but now I want to be a biologist,” Green said, explaining that she was inspired by two activities she had done at the Franklin Institute in her various roles over the years: extracting DNA from a strawberry and dissecting cow eyes.

“It kept me from just sitting in the house all summer,” she said, “and you get to meet people from all over the city with all different backgrounds.”

Green joked with Harvey about having to supervise her only slightly younger friend.

“When I first started, I was quiet and shy, but now it feels like a family here,” said Harvey, as she choked up about all her friends leaving for college after the summer ends, looking across the table at Green — who was quick to point out that the water in her eyes was from her allergies.

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