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In an August board meeting this year, it was decided that the nonprofit formerly known as Youth Empowerment Zone would be renamed COMO Youth Works in an effort to re-energize the brand and reinforce the organization’s mission.
“We are proud to be a grassroots nonprofit, born out of a need first identified by Almeta Crayton when she served as councilwoman for Columbia’s First Ward,” says Executive Director Loretta Schouten. Crayton found that the youth in her ward were often unemployed, even if they wanted jobs. “After 14 years and a recent change in leadership, we felt it was an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to our core mission of building educational outcomes, job readiness skills, and employment opportunities for the youth and young adults in greatest need in our community,” Schouten says.
The nine staff members of COMO Youth Works work with other organizations, businesses, and individuals all across the community to serve more than 350 youth and young adults each year who face what Schouten calls “the greatest barriers to self-sufficiency.”
“Our participants live in poverty, come from single-parent homes, became parents at a young age, have a parent or close family member incarcerated, or have been victims of trauma,” says Schouten. “Many will be the first generation in their families to graduate high school, go to college or technical school, or to pursue a vocation. Our youth and young adults are also some of the most motivated, kind, and hardworking people.”
COMO Youth Works recruits its participants by maintaining a presence in the Boone County high schools and middle schools, as well as at community events and in neighborhoods. They
also receive referrals.
The organization provides a broad spectrum of educational support to make sure the youth they serve graduate high school with as many opportunities as possible.
“This may include attending meetings with guidance counselors to make sure our youth get enrolled in the classes they need or advocating for our youth when they’re involved in disciplinary matters to ensure an equitable outcome that won’t close doors to future opportunities,” says Schouten.
“However, perhaps more importantly, we provide constant encouragement for them to keep progressing,” she adds. “Life in poverty is hard. Crime happens outside their front door, and many times our youth lack an adult who will walk beside them and be a source of strength and encouragement on those days when life threatens to overwhelm and derail their plans.”
The organization also provides job readiness training and employment assistance, including mentored employment.
“We teach our youth how to build strong resumes that showcase their skills and to write cover letters that will help employers see past a lack of experience or prior involvement with the justice system,” says Schouten. “Our board of directors conducts mock interviews with our youth so they have the skills and confidence to land the job.”
Additional resources include a network of more than 90 employers who are committed to employing the organization’s youth and helping them develop on-the-job skills so they can progress in their careers.
“We also provide career awareness opportunities that open doors to new experiences and new careers our youth may not have been aware of,” says Schouten.
The COMO Youth Works programs are broken down into four areas: education, employment, empowerment, entrepreneurship. The focus areas of education and employment are complemented with offerings in empowerment and entrepreneurship to create an all-encompassing curriculum.
The main COMO Youth Works facility, which serves high schoolers and young adults and houses the administrative offices, is located on Fay Street. An additional child care center is located on Thornberry Drive. The center cares for many children whose parents are enrolled in the COMO Youth Works programs.
Schouten thinks the biggest misconception people have is not about the organization but about the youth and young adults they serve. “Our youth are labeled by their teachers, schools, and our community,” says Schouten. “The words we use to describe our youth aren’t just idle placeholders — they determine what we see and how we interpret their potential. Labels form a lens we see through and can make us incapable of perceiving a person independent of the label. Tell a child they’re smart and a high achiever and they’ll act accordingly. Tell a child they’re poor and destined to struggle and that will be the lens through which they view their life. Words are powerful.”
Schouten believes COMO Youth Works’ programs are successful because the staff is passionate about the work they do and builds a strong relationship with every single person. “We know their friends and family members — we’ve been to their homes, we attend their school events and their graduations, we learn their goals and dreams and their challenges, and we work alongside them to change the trajectory of their lives,” says Schouten. “We never stop supporting. Years after our kids have graduated, secured good jobs, and are doing well, they stop in or we check in. We want them to know we will always be there when they need us.”
To proactively reach underserved, easily neglected, at-risk youth, engage them in empowering activities and ideas, and provide them with resources for success.
KIDS SERVED LAST YEAR
FULL-TIME STAFF MEMBERS
• Ann Merrifield
• Nick Orscheln
• Deb Valvo
• Kathy Green
• Frank Green
• Jesse Walters
• Megan Walters
• Anthony Conway
• Chris Bush
• John French