The Boys & Girls Club of Athens opened its YouthForce Innovation Hub in Georgia Square Mall on October 20, partnering with nonprofit organizations and businesses to give youth ages 12-21 the opportunity to share their skills and advance their career paths develop.
The hub’s bright, modern and flexible open floor plan, which occupies what was previously a Charlotte Russe on the mall’s second floor, was designed with input from the teens it will serve. There are currently eight jobs, including VR headsets simulating work routes such as flight mechanics, hospitality, and construction; iPads for self-assessment tools and career exploration; building and programming robots; cameras and a green screen for creating video content; Equipment for podcasts, a stage for public speaking, a faux office for mock interviews, and a hands-on assembly line.
“This is an innovative and interactive approach to personal development for teenage young people,” said Sterling Gardner, vice president of development. “Recruiting is one thing, retaining them is another. You have to do something beautiful, cool, innovative and creative to engage and keep them.”
One of the ongoing stations is dedicated to retail and offers opportunities to learn about purchasing, merchandising, accounting and the sale of goods and services. The hub’s location in the mall has already connected with a retailer interested in working with the Boys & Girls Club and offering initial employment opportunities. Looking ahead, the hub is exploring partnerships for healthcare, CNA certification, beauty, and hospitality programs. Excursions and internships are also part of the possibilities for the participants.
The UGA School of Social Work has partnered with the program to provide accountability coaches to continue work with young people who gain employment and leave the space. There will be follow-up periods to help employers retain these employees, but should an employee need to resign, the accountability coaches will help them apply the correct protocol when leaving. The center also provides resources for those interested in secondary education, from completing applications and financial aid to employment during school.
Prior to the hub’s opening, the club partnered with nine smaller nonprofit organizations that work primarily with teenagers, providing funding to increase their capacity and make their members club members with access to the resources of both programs. The result of this partnership was the mentoring of 207 new club members between grades 6-11 in two months and a pipeline of more young people who know and care about the hub. One of the partnerships was with Chess and Community, whose founder and CEO, Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, is also the center’s program director.
“It brought chess and community to a home. We do a lot of programming here and in the library, but that’s like the central location,” says LaRoche. “So it also opened the door for other nonprofits to use this space for free.”
The hub is funded in part by Zach McLeroy, chairman and founder of Zaxby’s, who expressed an interest in developing a young workforce when the club approached him about investing in its program. The hub is unique as a Boys & Girls club facility, and Gardner hopes to use this location as a pilot for other club organizations and create a regional program. Discussions have already begun with boys’ and girls’ clubs in nearby counties to provide transportation from their clubs to the hub until it can be expanded.
“Today’s workers aren’t what they were 20 or 30 years ago. Young people today are much less money oriented, but they are focused on the quality of life and the way they feel in the workplace. Unfortunately, many employers are still very production-oriented and don’t necessarily understand that this attitude doesn’t bring out the best in their employees. So I’m hoping that some of the things we can do will help fill in the gaps,” Gardner says.
The hub currently operates Monday through Friday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm with occasional programs on Saturdays. The earlier lessons are aimed at disengaged youth and 18-21 year olds to teach soft skills and explore career interests, skills and barriers. The three main programs Work Ready, Job Ready, Career Ready take place on different days with different age groups.
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