This summer more than 1,800 Prince George's County youth, aged 12-21, held jobs in fields from theaters arts to child care through the Summer Program for Economically Disadvantage Youth (SPEDY).
SPEDY is the county's updated version of the Neighborhood Youth Corp program formerly run by the Board of Education. The Project was funded with $1.68 million dollars in Labor Department funds.
Two years ago the county personnel office took over the summer job program and developed it into a career incentive project to expose youth to the business world and employers to the youth employment market.
Since that time, 298 job sites have been established along with a 55-member job coach force, under employee relations director Hilda Pemberton.
County executive Winfield Kelly describes the progrma as an educational motivator for potential dropouts and people returning to school. County personnel director Donald Weisberger views SPEDY as a link to solving many of the county's unemployment prolems.
"We feel the unemployment problem is only going to b solved by stimulating jobs in the private sector," said Weisberger. "Private businessmen can learn that these kids have a great deal toi offer. And when kids are treated properly they become terribly loyal.
"It (a youth work force) can cut down on things like shoplifting. Word gets out, don't come in here and take anything because these people have been good to me. It helps from a public relations standpoint, and from a racial standpoint it'll show back kids are just as smart and willing to work as well as everybody else. Not only are they willing, but they do," he said.
Weisberger said the county's youth unemployment rate is highest among black females. He attributes part of the problem to employer bias as well as poor job training among black youth. White employers, said Weisberger, must understand that black culture - dress, speech, behavior - differs from white culture. They must learn to work with these differences rather than discriminate against them, he said. Conversely black youth must also realize these are certain business standards they must conform to. SPEDY and the schools are working to bridge these misunderstandings, he said.
"The worse thing to do to kids is put them on the street after school, and they don't know how to handle themselves. During orientation we talk about things like you don't come into the office with a halter top on. You're supposed to be on time. You conform to office routine."
As elementary as these standards may seem, Weisberger said some of the more undisciplined youth have never dealt with them before.
In determining a youth's eligibility, the Labor Department set $5,800 as the maximum income for a family of four. However, Weisberger said his opinion is, "Any kdi that needs a job is needy."
Stephanie Boddie, a SPEDY worker at the Hyattville Public Library, is one such youth. Boddie said her summer salary has been helping her mother support four brothers and sisters.
"I'll be using the money to get books and clothes for school. If I wasn't working I wouldn't be able to get the books and I know I wouldn't have clothes," said Boddie.
This fall Boddie said she plans to study political science at the University of D.C. Meanwhile she has been doing a lot of reading, an interest she said she developed while working at the librarl.
Sonya Issac, 16, another SPEDY worker at the library also said her salary supplementing the family income.
As vital as the SPEDY jobs have been to the students, library personnel said the workers have been just as vital to them, because of cutbacks in funding.
"We'd be in trouble right now if we didn't have the SPEDY people," said the libray director.
In the Mt. Rainier area, a crew of SPEDY gardeners completed 100 clean-up and gardening projects for senior citizens.
"These kids are working. It shows kids are willing to work," said Margaret Chambers as a SPEDY crew scurried about in 90 degree heat cultivating her yard. "i hurt my back years ago. I don't think I'd be able to do this without them. I feel it's a great service."
"This is really what the homeowners around here need," agreed Minnie White.
Over at Andrews Air Force Base, Greg Brice, 15, and Reene Harrison, 14 give horsey rides to toddlers, bottles to babies, and a great deal of love in their roles a SPEDY aides at the base child care center.
Brice said he learned of the program from his brother, a former SPEDY employee who has since found a full-time government job. Harrison said she's enjoying the SPEDY experience and eventually intends to enter a child care profession.
"They've been a great help," said center director Cathy Coffland. "They've become a part of the regular workers." Additional staffing, the program aimed at low-income families would have been impossible without supplementary funding, she said.
Also working with children are the SPEDY Stage Door Players, a theater group located at the Glen Arden Town Hall.
On a typical afternoon, players Denise Trimble, 15, Michael Woodley, 16, Diane Tyson, 15, and Gerald Anderson 16, among others, were leading a group of rescue a victim from a spider web in the play "Once Upon A Clothesline."
He group recently played to 600 community youngsters who, according to job coach Carrol Forest, gave the play excellent reviews.
James Middleton, 17, said he enjoyed being in the theater group because "You get to do something for the little kdis to keep them out of street." Most of the players said they hope to return next year.
"That's pretty meaningful employment for those kids," agreed county executive Kelly after seeing the play. "They were so enthusiastic.
Employee relations director Pemberton said teh job coaches have played a vital role in encouraging the youngsters to follow their pursuits and excel in their job performance.
At present, the county office is working with the Board of Education on a proposal to make SPEDY a year round program.