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VIABILITY New York celebrates YEAP successes; Students/staff reminisce on 18-month program

June 5 marked the conclusion of VIABILITY New York’s Youth Employment Access Program (YEAP). But rather than mourn the end of an era, its students and staff are celebrating the experience, lessons, and achievements.

Central Islip Senior High School students Jamal and Daniel stock shelves at Walgreens in Brentwood, New York, during their internship.

Recently, students from two Long Island high schools who participated in YEAP spoke via a Zoom conference about successes that shaped them over the course of the 18-month-long program that included 12 weeks of an afterschool curriculum. They included Luisa and Michelle from Central Islip Senior High School; and Sumaita (pronounced Sum-eye-ta) and Quincy, who just graduated from Brentwood High School. The students engaged in career exploration, life-skills training, and workplace readiness. Specific activities included conflict resolution, résumé writing, and using professional language.

“The school districts out here on Long Island are tough and tend to focus on the negativity in certain areas versus the achievements of the students,” said Brenda Catalano, Director of VIABILITY New York. “We wanted to be a face in the community that let the students know we believed in them and that they could rise above to succeed.”

VIABILITY New York’s YEAP program used concepts from VIABILITY’s Move to Work® curriculum, a holistic job preparation program for 16 to 22-year-olds that prepare them for employment, stability, and self-sufficiency. When YEAP was introduced in 2018, nearly 600 students showed interest following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State agenda in which he requested a comprehensive strategy to engage youth in social and educational programs.

Because the YEAP program was designed to serve 46 total students from two schools — Suffolk County’s Brentwood High School and Central Islip Senior High School — VIABILITY staff worked with school leadership to narrow the list to students who would most benefit from the program. Twenty-three individuals from each school were invited to participate.

“I wish I had started the program a lot earlier, but I’m glad I had been a part of it because I needed the experience and now I have it and I can take everything I learned into the future and to apply for jobs,” said 17-year-old Sumaita, who said the program helped her feel comfortable talking to other people and overcome her shyness. Sumaita just graduated and plans to attend Suffolk County Community College for two years and later pursue a degree in Criminal Justice or move to Canada.

Fifteen-year-old Michelle agreed. She said as a freshman in a new school, she didn’t quite know where she fit in. She had a love for performing arts — acting and dancing — and wanted to get involved in other school activities, but didn’t know how. Then, Michelle was accepted into YEAP and earned an internship as a performing arts teacher for children.

“I learned how to be a leader and it was just amazing knowing the kids looked up to me,” Michelle said. “I loved it because I knew I was in the right place teaching them to do the right things in life.”

The students attributed their new skills and successes to their VIABILITY team, who supported them each step of the way. They said they would gladly recommend other students to get involved in another program. VIABILITY New York has since introduced Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), a career readiness program for students aged 14 to 22 years old. Staff are continually seeking funds to continue YEAP.