Op-Ed: It Takes a Village

Lee Palmer, a 22-year-old barista at Starbucks, has worked for the company for over a year. This is not his first job; he has worked for Steam Team, a car wash in Owings Mills, and Flying Fruits Fantasy Café, a coffee shop located in the University of Baltimore Law Center. Last year, Palmer attended a hiring fair at the urging of Nick Brooks, workforce development coordinator at the Youth Empowered Society (YES), a drop-in center for homeless youth in Baltimore City, and Starbucks hired him on the spot.

Palmer’s accomplishments are especially impressive given the obstacles he has had to overcome. At 18, Palmer became homeless. He has had stable housing for over a year, but he has struggled to meet his basic needs to a degree that more privileged youth could never imagine.

Steady employment is key to ending poverty, but getting and keeping a job is difficult. Many youth suffer from toxic levels of stress brought on by the challenges of housing, transportation, childcare, and traumatic experiences. Young people from stable homes struggle to become independent adults; the challenge is much greater for youth who must do it all on their own with the cards stacked against them.

Many Baltimore youth face the challenges Palmer has faced. Like him, they must be resourceful to achieve their goals. Fortunately, there is a wealth of individuals, agencies, and institutions in Baltimore working on behalf of the city’s youth. Lee’s success is entirely to his credit, but there were many helping hands along the way.

Palmer makes the most of the resources available. At 19 he connected with YES, and through the organization entered a Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) workforce development program. At 20 he worked with Choice, a job readiness program under the Shriver Center at UMBC. Choice helped him secure employment at the Flying Fruit Fantasy Café, where he began to hone his barista skills. His current job at Starbucks is also an example of many hands working together to build a network of support.

Starbucks became a partner in Baltimore City workforce development in response to the deaths of Freddie Gray and other black men at the hands of police and the consequent unrest in cities across America. Starbucks sought a new model for community engagement and the corporation’s national 100,000 Opportunities Initiative led to the opening of an Opportunity Café near Johns Hopkins hospital and the hiring of scores of city youth.

Effective employers must be willing to listen to the youth, learn who they are, what they need, and what aspirations they have. They must be willing to build a relationship, and this Starbucks has been able to do so with the help of the many organizations in Baltimore that support disadvantaged youth.

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes many agencies to ensure that Baltimore City youth have access to opportunity. The Mayor’s Office of Employment Development (MOED) works hard to develop programs that prepare young people for employment. The MOED and dozens of smaller organizations like YES and Choice are doing much to connect young people with prospective employers. It is an uphill battle, but the services are out there, and creative, passionate people are striving to connect programs, employers, and youth so that the citizens of Baltimore can reach their potential.

Palmer says additional drop-in centers are a key component to supporting young people experiencing homelessness. “There should be multiple drop-in centers around Baltimore,” he says, It’s just not fair.”

Palmer is proud of his accomplishments. His five-year goal is to get into college. Starbucks will cover tuition for online courses at Arizona State University, and Lee plans to take advantage of this benefit. He wants to study sociology, and thinks he may become a social worker. It takes many hands to lift a person up, and Palmer, having received the help of others, plans on giving back.

Jennifer Lee is a teacher and writer in Baltimore. She sits on the board of the Youth Empowered Society.

Editor’s Note: The Baltimore Beat is collecting outerwear for Youth Empowered Society (YES) at our holiday happy hour on Thursday, Dec. 21 from 5-8 p.m. at Pen & Quill.

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