Biscuits were steaming, eggs were sizzling, and the breakfast brigade at Madonna Homes was in full force on an early August morning.
Seated around tables in twos, threes, and fours, the community's residents dug into savory plates of what one termed "sausage-studded, gravy-smothered deliciousness."
Back in the kitchen, 22-year-old Marianne Hodges and 17-year-old Shanequa Crawford were hard at work. And in the common room, 17-year-old Devon Marshall and 16-year-old Thomas Fuller were tidying up, mingling with residents, and chowing down themselves.
Working at the home for senior citizens and the disabled every weekday from 7:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., the young men and women are four of the 955 Lucas County youths who have been employed this summer thanks to the Stimulus Summer Youth Program, an American Reinvestment and Recovery Act-funded youth training and education program.
"It's opened me up to new things," said Miss Hodges, who is majoring in finance at the University of Toledo. "I assist with anything they need help with - anything."
Many laud the program for providing employment, training, and opportunity for the area's young adults, while others admit there have been issues - including youths quitting or being fired, not showing up for work, or requiring too much supervision.
For Miss Hodges and her employers, though, the experience has been positive. She has taken inventory of the home's food pantry and its linen closet, work which has enabled Dan Gosbeth, who runs the home, to better assess what is available to residents.
Mr. Gosbeth said the stimulus workers were eager to work and had "hit the ground running" in their first week on the job.
"I just wish they could stay longer," he said.
The program's objective is to create summer employment opportunities for youths between the ages of 16 and 24 who are low-income individuals and face a federally recognized barrier to employment, one of which is the current economy.
Eric Walker, director of the Lucas County Workforce Development Agency, said Lucas County received $2.5 million in stimulus funding to run the program and match 1,000 low-income, at-risk youths with summer employment opportunities.
The program officially began May 1 and runs until the end of September.
For one participant, Chandael Smith, 17, the program has provided an introduction to paid work. She has learned how to manage the money she made and has added to her resume.
A senior at Notre Dame Academy, she said she would "probably [be] doing teenage things and still be looking for a job" if she had not applied and been placed as an administrative assistant at Mercy College.
Chandael, like the other youths, works 25 hours a week and is paid $7.50 an hour - and will be working at Mercy for four more weeks, bringing her total work experience to 200 hours over eight weeks. And because the stimulus program funded her employment, it didn't cost Mercy College a cent.
"[Mercy] has benefited by her being here with us," said Cheryl Nutter, the director of Mercy's continuing education program and Chandael's supervisor.
"She was responsive, she was prompt, she showed a lot of initiative. I can't imagine how it really could have been better."
In addition to Mercy, there are 143 other program work sites throughout Lucas County, of which 65 are nonprofit, 16 are faith-based, 16 are public agencies, and 47 are private businesses.
Not all news coming out of the program is good.
Bruce Rumpf, president and
chief executive officer of Job1USA, said his company's involvement with the stimulus program has become a public relations liability for the Toledo for-profit company.
The entity is the employer of record for three of the five organizations to which The Source, Lucas County's one-stop employment center, subcontracted the stimulus program's administration.
As such, Job1USA manages the payrolls for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio, Oregon Career and Technology Center, and the Workforce Development Agency, organizations which respectively recruited and matched 110, 100, and 43 local youths with stimulus-funded summer employment opportunities.
The Lucas County Educational Service Center, Harbor Career Connections, the YMCA of Greater Toledo, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the Workforce Development Agency are also administering the program, cumulatively placing 702 youths.
Mr. Rumpf said his company had been receiving complaints from some of the work sites about the amount of supervision the youths required and that he was growing increasingly concerned that those work sites were associating Job1USA with the underperforming youths.
"My folks say, 'Bruce, we don't want to deal with this anymore. It's better for us not to have the free labor,' " Mr. Rumpf said.
He added that his own firm had fired the three workers it had taken on because it cost his organization more to use, and supervise them than not to have them at all.
At the Workforce Development Agency, Mr. Walker acknowledged that not all the employers fully understood the amount of instruction and guidance some of the workers would require.
"One of the things you find at many of our work sites is that youth lack work maturity and work-readiness skills," he said.
Of the organizations administering the program, Harbor Career Connections has the highest youth noncompletion rate.
Rachel Rodriguez, Harbor's youth program manager, said that so far 50 youths - one-sixth of those the organization matched with employment - either stopped showing up for work or were let go by their employer.
"A lot of them just stopped coming [to work]," she said. "We try to call them and track them down, and they usually ignore our calls and usually don't give a good reason for why they quit."
Ultimately though, administrators say that despite the attendance and behavioral issues - which are to be anticipated when dealing with youths - the program has been a success.
To date, 81 youths - about 8.5 percent of those placed - have failed to complete the program, for the most part because they stopped showing up at the work site or were fired.
However, a handful dropped out to attend summer school or because the work site hired them directly, said Mr. Walker, though he could not provide an exact figure.
The three largest administrators of the program are the YMCA of Greater Toledo, Harbor Career Connections, and Big Brothers Big Sisters, which have matched 307, 300, and 110 youths, respectively.
"It's been challenging to work with individuals who have never worked before," said Jay Leeming, the director of workforce development for Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio.
"I think a lot of students are lacking soft skills - the behaviors needed to maintain employment. And I think we as employers have the responsibility to provide them, to assist them in gaining those skills."
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