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Houston's Opportunity: Reconnecting Disengaged Youth and Young Adults to Strengthen Houston's Economy

Opportunity Youth and Young Adults are defined as individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither attending school nor working. Despite the country’s gradual economic recovery following the recent recession, these youth represent an often overlooked segment of society. Many have dropped out of school. Still more finished high school but had few options awaiting them. Barriers like criminal records and a lack of skills, experience or even transportation often work against their best intentions. Here are some stories about Opportunity Youth and Young Adults in Houston who have been struggling with obstacles such as family responsibilities, financial instability, teen pregnancy, lack of support from parents and teachers, etc.

Nancy

Nancy, a 2012 high school graduate, began her studies in radiology at Houston Community College in the fall of 2012. She was pregnant when she began college and took a semester off when her child was born. When she re-enrolled the following semester, she struggled with her classes and was constantly challenged with finding childcare. She knew she could seek support from Project GRAD but wasn’t sure how to access such support. When a family member passed away, she made the decision to leave college behind and remain at home.

Then, an acquaintance from high school working with Project GRAD recognized Nancy’s name on a list of students eligible for scholarship funds. She reached out to Nancy and now she is beginning the process of applying for financial aid and re-enrolling in college. She has the encouragement of her father, friends, and husband. Her story is similar to that of many Opportunity Youth and Young Adults. Despite an interest in pursuing higher education, various life circumstances derail their progress toward achieving educational aspirations. With support, students like Nancy can access the resources needed to succeed in accomplishing their goals.

Frank

Frank, a 2009 high school graduate, attended Houston Community College and earned 24 credits before leaving school to support his family. His employment was erratic, sometimes two part-time jobs, sometimes nothing. Eventually Frank found a more stable job with a janitorial services company. Able to work only one job, he began to think about returning to school. He plans to re-enroll as a full-time college student to study mechanical or chemical engineering. A Project GRAD Coach helped him complete financial aid forms and get back on track to return to college. He is an example of how Opportunity Youth and Young Adults can move in and out of college and bounce between low-wage, part-time employment. With support, students can take the steps necessary to progress along the college and career trajectory they seek for themselves.

C’alra

C’alra was 18 years old when she applied for and was accepted to SER’s YouthBuild program in early July 2016. She went to SER through a recommendation by her probation officer, who said she was one of the few of his clients who followed up on his referral. C’alra successfully and eagerly completed her first two weeks of mental toughness, the first phase of YouthBuild’s enrollment process, enabling her to begin her GED classes and her construction skills training with National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) while earning a stipend. She is committed to achieving her education and becoming “someone.” C'alra would be the second person in her family to complete high school, following her older sister.

Both C'alra's parents were incarcerated when she was 15, leaving her to raise herself. She did her best to stay focused on her education and stay out of trouble. But, after bouncing from school to school and couch to couch, she fell into a rough crowd. C’alra said she couldn’t remember what it felt like to sleep in a bed. Eventually, she was arrested for evading arrest and took a plea bargain, which gave her a felony charge and two years probation to avoid jail. But she was arrested again while on probation for shoplifting clothes from Walmart. Her sister bailed her out. Her court date was set for August 5, 2016.

When Nory Angel, the executive director of SER, learned about C'alra's court date, she offered to go with her. C'alra eagerly accepted. At the courthouse, they had little information and C'alra still had not met her court appointed lawyer, yet her future depended on what her lawyer negotiated with the judge. Her lawyer showed up two hours later, and advised that she remain in jail until her hearing a week later.

After being in custody for five days, C'alra was unexpectedly taken from the jail and to the courthouse to meet with the judge and her new court appointed lawyer regarding her felony case. She didn’t have time to inform anyone about the meeting and so she found herself in court alone for her first encounter with her new court appointed lawyer, who told her to take a plea bargain from the judge for three years in prison for violating her probation. C’alra said no. The lawyer tried again: two years in prison. This was the best and final offer she would get, he told her. Reject the offer and risk a formal hearing and a potential eight years in prison for violating her probation.

C'alra later shared with Nory Angel that she was scared that at 18 years old, she could get an eight-year sentence. So, without anyone to speak to, she took the two-year plea deal. She still does not know the name of the court appointed lawyer for her felony case. C’alra has now been in custody for several weeks. Since then, Nory has spoken with several lawyers to discuss C'alra's options, which are limited. To appeal, she needs a lawyer and the resources for legal representation, which her family does not have. But the lawyers shared that she will probably serve three to four months of her sentence in prison and the rest on parole.

Regarding her misdemeanor case, the first court appointed lawyer was able to speak with the prosecutor who agreed to drop the charges. This is considered as a positive news because compared to her felony charge of evading arrest, shoplifting, "is a crime of moral turpitude," the lawyers said, and thus would be harder to explain at a job interview. "It will be easier for her to explain that she was scared and ran from the police," the lawyer explained.

Ronald

Ronald is a junior at Scarborough High School. Today, he is helping produce a regular newsletter with the community organization, Magnum Manor, that will help the community engage with and understand the youth of his community. But it was a long journey to this point. Ronald grew up in Trinity Gardens, a neighborhood in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a historically African-American area.

This is how he described life growing up there:

In Trinity Gardens, gunshots were my alarm. My mom dropped out of school in the 11th grade. I don't know my father. I would wait on my cousins’ old shoes because my mom couldn't afford to buy me new shoes. At a young age, I began to make crazy decisions because I felt like life did not matter and that I would amount to nothing because my family came from nothing.

About four years ago, there was a lady that told me every morning I am going to be something special one day. She told me I was going to be a doctor, and the next that I was going to be the president and so on. I thought to myself, "I will never be any of those things.” About a year later, I started going to church and I read the scripture Philippians 4:13 "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Every day after that, I woke up and told myself, "I'm going to be someone.”

The more I spoke that over my life things began to work in my favor. I became an HISD employee at an early age after volunteering for one year. I still felt like I needed to learn skills to help me through life, so I joined My Brother's Keeper. In this organization I've learned how to become a more responsible young adult. Through activities like the career panel, brainstorming community projects, working with the assistant principal and counselor in a different way than when I'm at work, and working with my classmates, I have gained many skills and much knowledge. There were days I wanted to drop out because I became very busy with work and band, but I thought to myself, "I've learned so much from My Brother’s Keepers. Why drop out now?" My Brother's Keeper has taught me things like self-motivation and self-confidence. Today I stand as a motivated young man seeking success no matter what storm may come my way.