For Ehidiame Akojie and his twin brother, Ehizele, this summer has been filled with days of moving desks, cleaning walls and stripping floors. The work is often hard, and it’s definitely not glamorous. But it is work the 16-year-olds are proud of doing.
“I think when you work hard now, you can rest easier later in life,” Ehidiame said.
The Akojie brothers are among 3,000 Prince George’s teenagers taking part in the county’s Youth@Work/Summer Youth Enrichment Program. Now in its fourth year, county officials said the goal of the program was to do more than provide young people with employment for six weeks.
“People may see this as menial work,” said Valerie Farrar, manager of recruitment, examination and classification for the Prince George’s County Department of Human Resources Management. But, Farrar said, students are learning what it means to be responsible for themselves and to others.
Farrar said that the teens, ages 15 to 19, are working at 80 different sites throughout the county. Jobs include helping to prepare schools for the upcoming year, working in the conservation corps building birdhouses or cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
In addition, some students are crafting computer models to “solve real problems” in at-risk communities that are part of the county’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, Farrar said. That program focuses on helping six neighborhoods in the county that face economic, health, public safety and educational challenges.
Vincent Harrington, community developer for Youth@Work, said the program helps differentiate the teens from their peers. Some of them are working with Alzheimer’s patients; others are working in some of the county’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Those 15 to 17 years of age earn $8.25 an hour. The 18- and 19-year-olds make $10 an hour.
Rosemary Pezzuto, chief executive of Camp Fire Patuxent Area, a nonprofit group that works with at-risk youth, took a half-dozen of the summer job workers to their camp in Reading, Pa.
“The young people in our programs come from shelters or have been marginalized or have families who are economically challenged,” Pezzuto said. “At camp, we talk about issues — building character, setting goals and dealing with difficult times. The biggest thing is for the young people to know that there is a champion in their lives who loves them.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said the idea for Youth@Work came about in 2012 after a particularly violent year for youths in the county.
“We had six young people who died because of gun violence — and when we peeled away the onion, we found that these were young people who didn’t have jobs, who didn’t have careers,” Baker said.
“Part of what we wanted to do was not just to provide a summer job,” Baker added. He said the county and its residents needed the teens to feel fully part of the community.
“We need young people’s eyes and ears to solve real problems in the county,” Baker said. “We are bringing some of the young people back to the program as team leaders who are learning leadership skills.”
At 7 a.m. on a recent morning, Ehidiame and Ehizele Akojie were in their Upper Marlboro home preparing to make a brief walk to James Madison Middle School, where they would spend the day working on the campus. This is their second summer there.
Marquis Proctor, the building supervisor at the school described the teens as team leaders.
“I am trying to give them skills and values that they can use in life,” Proctor said. “I put them in charge because I know that they can lead.”
The young men see the work as preparing them for their future. They have hopes for a career in the National Football League and of using their money to launch an IT or computer software company.
And they feel that they have something to prove.
Ehidiame said the recent deaths of young black men, many of them close to his age, at the hands of police officers has weighed on him. He knows that not everyone who looks at him and his brother can see their good grades or the hard work they put in.
But, he said, “I am working hard to prove that I am not just a regular person.”