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In the spring of 2004, a drive-by shooting near the Columbia Mall sparked outrage in the community.
At the time, Lorenzo Lawson was working as the executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center, where he mainly assisted individuals in poverty. The center hosted a series of town hall meetings, attempting to answer one question: How do we prevent this [drive-by shooting] from happening again?
They decided to conduct a survey with local youth and asked what could be done to keep youth away from negative behaviors. Overwhelmingly, they found that the young people they’d asked were having a difficult time finding good jobs.
That summer, Lawson and others secured jobs for 42 youth. However, more than 80 percent of the individuals placed lasted for less than a month at those jobs. What was missing were basic life skills: resume writing, interview skills, conflict resolution and anger management, to name a few.
“[The youth we placed] deal with conflict resolution in what we call the survival mode: fight or flight,” Lawson says. “When [they] experienced conflict on the job, they found the best way to deal with it was just to quit.”
It was ultimately this series of events that encouraged Lawson to form his own nonprofit program, Youth Empowerment Zone. In December 2014, YEZ celebrated 10 years of service.
“It has taken us 10 years to build our reputation, but we are really seeing the benefits,” Lawson says. “Kids that were originally headed to prison are now in college or are stable, working and starting families.”
YEZ works with youth between the ages of 14 and 24, though even youth outside that age range won’t be turned away if they need assistance. The focus of the nonprofit’s efforts are the four Es: education, employment, empowerment and entrepreneurship. To meet these goals, YEZ offers afterschool tutoring services, early child care services, Learn 2 Earn, MENtour and an entrepreneurship program.
Afterschool tutoring is offered Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. Learn 2 Earn prepares youth for the workforce through its Job Readiness Training. Program participants learn how to dress for interviews, build a resume and practice for interviews, among other skills. YEZ also offers child care services before and after school, when parents may still be at work.
MENtour is a mentorship program for boys and men between the ages of 14 and 24 to encourage participants to engage in activities that will help broaden their personal experiences. And the entrepreneurship program teaches young individuals how to jumpstart their own businesses.
YEZ has a staff of four, each specially trained to handle the “greatest at-risk kids,” Lawson says. However, YEZ is not a welfare program. Lawson emphasizes this point to let people in the community know that YEZ is not about giving handouts.
“The biggest thing that makes us successful is that we build relationships with our youth that allow them to really trust us and tell us the truth,” Lawson says.
YEZ has also established relationships throughout the community to find youth in need. The group currently receives referrals from the community, from the juvenile system, the Division of Youth Services, Boys & Girls Club and Burrell Behavioral Health.
Over the next 10 years, YEZ aims to promote self-sustainability.
“Our goal to help young people turn their lives around and prevent criminality and drug use,” Lawson says. “We put programming in place to help them prosper and teach them on how to be business leaders.”
Lawson also hopes to expand YEZ’s child care system and maintain its affordable rate. YEZ also hopes to form a better partnership with Columbia Public Schools.
“Some teachers don’t understand the culture of our kids,” Lawson says. “They don’t know how to relate to them, and the European style of teaching isn’t conducive to our kids.”
Lawson says YEZ would also like to focus more on its entrepreneurship program and establish a new subprogram, “The Handy Man Program,” to teach practical business skills to youth with felony convictions.
“It breaks my heart to hear people say, ‘We need to get these bad kids off the street,’” Lawson says. “They are brilliant, and if we take the time to invest in them, they can produce great things.”
For more information about the Youth Empowerment Zone, visit its website at yezweb.org.