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Purvis Hunt III sat in his cluttered office for a few minutes before the after-school rush of teenagers coming to the Youth Empowerment Zone office on Rogers Street. He looked for printouts of statistics showing how in the past seven years the local organization has helped more than 200 at-risk youth get their lives on track and find jobs in Columbia.
Hunt’s search was interrupted by a call on his cell phone. “I have a gift card from Walmart for $37,” he said to the caller. “It’ll be enough for some socks and pants. That’ll get you started.”
The caller, Hunt said, was a homeless teen who had run out of clothes and places to stay. “I’m helping him with his laundry and helping him find a new place to stay,” he said. “See, this is happening right here every day. YEZ is vital to these youths.”
As the youth specialist at YEZ and one of only three full-time staff members, Hunt said he has seen teens in better situations, and he’s seen them in much worse situations. The organization targets youths between ages 14 and 24.
“Some come here and need pretty much everything,” Hunt said. “We help them find food and clothing, teach them life skills and help them connect with social services organizations in the area that can help them even more.
“But some youths just need to know how to go about learning and improving job-hunting skills so that they can successfully find employment.”
Steven Maurer and Jackie Barnes are two of those teens. Both graduated from high school in May — Barnes from Hickman and Maurer from Rock Bridge — and they were looking for full-time employment.
As with other YEZ teens, Hunt first helped the two brush up their resumes and interviewing skills using computers and other job-hunting tools in the office’s workroom and computer lab. Then came the process of filling out applications and actually going to job interviews.
Maurer found work as an assistant with Sterling Food Service Management, which provides meals to three fraternities and five sororities at the University of Missouri. “I’ve learned quite a lot about customer service and how to always work extra to make sure that our customers are happy,” he said.
Maurer’s job includes setting up the salad bars at each house and then washing dishes at the Farm House fraternity. He said he’s working to save enough money to go to college and hopes to become an artist or illustrator.
“Steven is one of those employees who puts everything into his work, and you can tell this guy is destined to do great things,” said Sterling President Philip Dercher. “He really embodies what I see happening at YEZ. They do everything they can to help their teens succeed.”
Dercher learned about YEZ from Program Director Karita McDowall, a classmate in the M.B.A. program at William Woods University. “I had a job opening, but I was reluctant to hire a teen at first because it’s imperative that my staff show up on time every time, otherwise there are a lot of hungry and angry people,” Dercher said. “Karita, Purvis and [YEZ Executive Director] Lorenzo [Lawson] assured me that I could trust a YEZ teen, and they were absolutely right. I’ve never had to worry about Steve.”
At Missouri Cotton Exchange, a T-shirt screen-printing business located in south Columbia, Barnes’ main responsibility is to sort T-shirts hot off the press. “I was nervous at first, but this has been great; I love my job, and they keep giving me more things to do,” Barnes said of her work.
YEZ not only helps at-risk youths find employment, but it also tries to establish mentorships with the youths’ employers. Walter Crook, production manager at Missouri Cotton Exchange, said he’s impressed with how Barnes matured so quickly into a significant member of his team. “I’m glad we got her; I even like her,” he said and then grinned. “It’s quite possible that we’ll hire more workers from YEZ.”
Missouri Cotton Exchange owner Jeff Glenn echoed Crook’s enthusiasm for the program, and Glenn has an even more personal connection to the program. “My dad owned the Gene Glenn’s store on Broadway, and Lorenzo once told me that Dad was one of the only businesses in Columbia who would extend credit to his mother because his family was so poor,” Glenn said. “But Lorenzo’s mom would always pay her bill, and it’s good to know that Lorenzo now works to give others a chance at becoming successful.”
Lorenzo Lawson and Nathan Stephens founded the Youth Empowerment Zone in 2004 in response to Councilwoman Almeta Crayton’s request for an organization that would address the lack of employment opportunities for at-risk youth in Columbia’s 1st Ward. The organization has since expanded to help youths throughout the city.
YEZ’s brochure describes the organization as using “nontraditional methods in turning around the lives of youth who were headed down the wrong path. Staff members make jobsite and home visits and are a liaison between youth and their employers.”
Lawson said YEZ has a success rate of approximately 65 percent. “We can’t reach every teen, but we try and try,” he said. “The fact is, we don’t promise them a job. We promise to prepare them to find a job. The word empowerment in our name is very important. We help our youth find the tools and show them the way, but they must do the work themselves.”
When YEZ began, Hunt and volunteers would visit gathering spots for at-risk teens and tell them about their organization. Today, word of mouth has spread so successfully that teens come to the YEZ office to join. “We still visit the teen hangouts, but it’s good to know that we’re having such a positive impact that teens look for us and respect us,” Hunt said. “And once they join, we want to get their parents involved as soon as possible with at least a home visit. If we can do that, then we know they’ll be part of our 65 percent of successes.”
The Boone County Community Partnership originally served as YEZ’s organizational incubator and managed its finances until September 2009, when a scandal involving BCCP’s fiscal responsibility forced the two organizations to cut ties. Today the organization, which is local-grown and not part of any larger national organization, is funded partly through a state grant, state tax credits and city social service program. Job Point, a statewide employment center that shares its mission, vision and values with YEZ, also subcontracts with YEZ to provide life-skill training to its students.
Donations from corporations, private businesses and individuals comprise a substantial amount of YEZ’s funding. A fundraiser in May brought in nearly $28,000 and was sponsored by two of its longtime sponsors: Zimmer Radio Group and MFA Oil.
“YEZ gets to the issues really facing our community,” said Jerry Taylor, president and CEO of MFA Oil and a member of the YEZ board when it was established. MFA Oil also provides jobs to YEZ teens through its Jiffy Lube and Big O Tires stores. “Unemployment of young people under age 25 has been rising, and that contributes significantly to the social problems we’re seeing. YEZ fits in because it shows young people how to live successful, productive lives. Lorenzo and his staff know the heart of the city, and they know how to overcome hurdles.”
One obstacle that’s grown during tough economic times is dwindling financial support. In addition to fundraisers, YEZ sells tax credits that not only provide much-needed dollars to the organization but also help reduce an individual’s or business’s taxes. A $10,000 donation, for example, may result in more than $7,000 in state and federal tax savings and $3,000 in out-of-pocket costs. Also, buying tax credits from YEZ gives an individual or business the opportunity to designate their tax dollars stay in the community.
In addition to donations, YEZ also asks businesses to provide mentoring partnerships. “We are working hard to prepare our youths to enter the work force and to build their careers, so we look to area businesses to help by thinking of YEZ when they have a job opening,” Lawson said. “We have great workers here who just need an opportunity.”