Three teens gathered around a glass jar, puzzling over whether or not the insect trapped inside was a potato beetle.
Breaking away for a moment, one youth grabbed a brown paper bag.
“Smell this,” she prompted, fishing out a piece of dried mint, noting proudly that it came from the nearby garden all of them were helping to grow.
There are 23 inquisitive young people working in the Roots and Wisdom gardens in Schenectady, 19 of them employed through Schenectady County’s Summer Youth Employment program, headed by the Schenectady Job Training Agency.
The employment program provides part-time work for low-income county residents ages 14 to 21. A recent $125,000 grant from The Schenectady Foundation enabled the addition of 100 young workers, bringing the total number in the program to 325.
Employed part time at 85 different job sites throughout Schenectady County, the youths work for six weeks during July and August. Some help out at city pools, some garden, others clean classrooms, still others do office work. All receive job skill training and learn about community resources that can help them advance in the job market.
The young employees interviewed by The Gazette are enthusiastic about cars and college educations to be funded with the money they are earning, but all agreed they are getting much more out of their summer jobs than a paycheck.
Xavier Marin has his first summer job, helping to tend the Roots and Wisdom gardens. A youth agriculture and community service program, Roots and Wisdom grows organic vegetables in Schenectady. The group sells its produce at a youth-run farm stand and donates some of it to local food pantries.
After less than two weeks on the job, 14-year-old Xavier could already rattle off the names of most of the things growing in the expansive Fehr Avenue garden and was quick to give advice.
“The raspberries are very painful because of the thorns,” he cautioned. “When you’re going to pick them, you’ve got to make sure you’re wearing long sleeves and gloves.”
He said he had a basic knowledge of garden plants before starting the job. “I just didn’t know how long they would take to grow,” he said.
Xavier’s colleague, 19-year-old Matt Gardner, wants to run his own construction company one day. He said his work in the garden will benefit that pursuit.
“If [my clients] want to build their own garden, I would know what to do. And I can also landscape,” he said.
Keshawn LaPlante is a crew leader at the garden. Now preparing to begin his second year at Alfred University, he started working with Roots and Wisdom through the Summer Youth Employment program when he was in 10th grade. He said the work sparked his interest in gardening and led him to plant a garden of is own.
“This is probably the biggest hobby in my life right now,” he said.
At Quackenbush Park, young employees in bright yellow T-shirts play basketball with visitors, engage them in educational activities, serve as bathroom monitors and work as front desk attendants.
Nadia Rubino, 18, works with the kids there, teaching educational games like “hopscotch math” and helping with arts and crafts. She plans to attend the College of Saint Rose in the fall, with a goal of becoming a teacher.
Rubino said her summer work is helping to prepare her for that job.
“Every day is different. I think that’s the biggest surprise. You come in with a plan and with kids, it changes every time,” she said.
Park employee Juliette Jozwiak, 17, is debating between becoming a chemist or a wildlife technician. She said her job at Quackenbush Park has helped her develop skills she’ll need for whatever she decides to do later in life.
“It’s helped me with a lot of people skills, because when I first started working here I had little to none,” she said, her hands covered in chalk dust from a recent drawing she’d been working on with park visitors. “I was terrible at talking to people I didn’t know. It really helped me to come out of my shell more, I guess.”
Eighteen-year-old Moses Oscar plans to become a child psychologist. He said his work with kids at Quackenbush Park has helped to reinforce his desire to spend his professional life working with young people.
“You kind of see the troubles in their lives and stuff like that and it kind of makes me want to be a psychologist even more,” he explained.
Danielle Mitchell, a job coach for the Schenectady Job Training Agency, once stood in the shoes of those she now works with. At age 14, she got her first job, working as a pool monitor with the Summer Youth Employment program. Through the program, she also became involved with an after school initiative that hooked her up with a mentor.
“It really saved me,” she said. ”I felt like I just didn’t want to finish high school. It gave me a mentor. It gave me something that kept me in school, because, let me tell you, without a mentor, I don’t know if I would have graduated from high school. And not only did I graduate from high school, I graduated from college and I’m still continuing on in college.”
Young people working through the Summer Youth Employment program are offered a variety of resources to help them achieve success. They receive training in “soft skills,” including how to speak to an employer, fill out a job application, dress for a job, and act while on the job.
Workers are also taught interview skills and given tips on how to manage their finances. The Schenectady Foundation and SEFCU have pledged to match up to $10 of each young employee’s deposits into their bank accounts, as an incentive for them to build their savings.
Seth Trouwborst, 16, has a summer job through the Summer Youth Employment program, at print shop Media Well Done in Schenectady. He’s helping to cut signs, laminate things and is learning to work the company’s enormous printer.
“It’s nice to have a first official job working under someone, to get that experience,” he said. “I’ve learned to work with people and I’m getting money for college. That’ll prepare me for the future.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040, firstname.lastname@example.org and @KellydelaRocha.