Above: A youth uses the computer lab at the Youth Progress Career Center.
On the surface, D.N.* sounds like a lot of other 19-year-olds.
During a phone call on a recent afternoon, he said that he’d just returned home from looking at a house for rent — his first place to live on his own.
He has a management job at a grocery store, although it’s the overnight shift, from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. But he’s been learning how to save money and even has enough to buy his own car soon. He’s considering enrolling in college to study psychology.
D.N. is an easy-going, hard-working young man in his late teens who seems on track for a stable and normal day-to-day life. His success is even more impressive when you learn that he’s currently on parole after a year of incarceration with Oregon Youth Authority.
He is exactly what the leaders at Youth Progress in Portland envision for their College and Career Attainment Program, which D.N. has been part of for about a year.
The program provides culturally responsive, trauma-informed, engagement-based, and youth-centered programs and services through a combination of proctor foster homes and a Career Center. The focus is to help youth successfully transfer from incarceration back into the community by developing skills in job readiness, college and career planning, budgeting, money management, and independent living.
“My goal is always to try to normalize their life,” says David Zahn, College and Career Attainment Specialist. “They’re coming from being locked up, being inside a place where you don’t operate in a normal capacity.”
Youth Progress is one of OYA’s contracted programs for youth in the community who are on parole or probation. The program accepts youth ages 17 to 25, but most young people there tend to fall in the 17-19 range.
Currently, seven OYA youth live in Youth Progress proctor foster homes and receive services and supports at the Career Center during the day when they are not at work.
The programs got a major boost this fall with a move to a new building in Southeast Portland. Considering the work they do to help OYA youth find stable living and employment, they couldn’t have better neighbors.
They share the new building with SE Works and Work Source Portland Metro, which provide assistance to the unemployed; Constructing Hope, a pre-apprenticeship training program for people who want to enter the construction industry; and Bridges to Change, an alcohol and drug treatment program.
“With a combination of OYA resources, individual philanthropic support, and grants, we’re now able to have a dedicated space designed purely for this specific approach to supporting youth in OYA’s custody,” says Nick Gallo, executive director of Youth Progress.
Zahn put together a curriculum made of different programs that he knew would benefit youth. They start with a program from U.S. Department of Labor called “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills,” which teaches teamwork, professionalism, how to speak well, how to present yourself at work, and related skills.
Youth also do programs on financial planning, money skills, wellness planning, and even relationship building, where they talk about how to strike a balance between home and work life.
Rent Well, an independent tenant and landlord training program, is also an important part of their learning. Rent Well helps them learn how to overcome potential barriers to finding housing, such as a history of incarceration.
Rent Well graduates receive a certificate which can reimburse a landlord if the youth leaves their rental unit within the first year and owes unpaid rent, damages, or legal fees beyond what the security deposit covers. This helps graduates to be more competitive in a tough rental market.
D.N. called out Rent Well program as one of the most helpful programs during his time at Youth Progress.
“The whole program here has been amazing,” he says. “They connect you to community resources and give you skills for living on your own. Everyone is really nice and helpful. The more trust you build, the more freedom they give you, which is really nice.”
According to Gallo, 94.4% of youth are successfully employed and 100% have a career or education plan when they leave Youth Progress. On average, they also leave with $3,500 in savings.
D.N. is leaving with much more, partly because he paid all his restitution while he was still incarcerated, and partly because he’s been so focused on working and earning money since he paroled.
In fact, Youth Progress staff advised him to slow down a bit for his own mental health.
“I was working a lot of hours. I love to work, so that part was pretty easy,” D.N. says. “They helped me learn how to balance work and fun. There were times I was pulling as much overtime as possible and not giving myself a break. They would pull me aside and tell me I needed to take a break and let myself recover.”
The Career Center’s new location includes a pool table, foosball table, and video games to help youth remember the importance of balancing work and recreation.
“Young men this age need some down time as well, but structured,” Gallo says. “They’re 17, 18, 19 years old. Let them be teenagers. It’s important for the young men, but it’s also good for the relationship-building that our staff are doing.”
D.N. is nearly finished with the program. One of his biggest struggles that led to him being in custody was his fight with substance abuse. Once he got sober while incarcerated, he started feeling like himself again, and it showed him that he needed to change.
“When I was using, I didn’t really care about things, and I was just living in the now,” D.N. says. “I started to think about where I want to be down the road once I get out of here, and to think about building a life worth living.”
He credits the Youth Progress staff with helping him successfully navigate the tough road back to the community.
“It’s a really good transition from being locked up,” he says. “It would have been a real struggle if I didn’t have a program like this.”
*D. and N. are not his real initials.
Additional supports for the new Career Center were provided by:
James and Shirley Rippey Family Foundation
Oregon Community Foundation
Generous Board member contributions
Nike Furniture Donation Program
Mt. Scott Fuel Company