For Cassandra, a 15-year-old Mountain View High School student, the excitement of payday is tempered by the realization of how fortunate she is to have this job. With millions of Americans out of work and state budgets in the red, teens are running up against two formidable obstacles as they search for jobs: stiff competition from adults desperate for any kind of employment, and a shrinking number of recreation programs, the go-to summer job for many high school students. As a result, many summering teens and college students have turned to unpaid internships to stay occupied; others have held out upturned palms to mom and dad for movie tickets or ice cream.
However, Cassandra is one of 20 Mountain View teens who has found work through a summer jobs program run by Nova, a Sunnyvale-based non-profit employment and training agency. Using federal and state subsidies, Nova is helping the Community School of Music and Arts, along with many other local organizations, pay teens like Cassandra. The hope is that employers will benefit from the extra help and that teens will earn a little money while gaining valuable workplace experience.
"I really like it," Cassandra says of her job at the summer camp program, where she helps with classroom set-up, child supervision and various activities. She found out about the Nova program through a school job fair and is happy that she was able to secure one of the limited slots. "It was the only place that took 15-year-olds."
Normally, someone like Cassandra would not get paid, says Mira Ross, program coordinator for art camps at CSMA. Cassandra has no prior job experience, and the Community School usually requires aides to have volunteered for one or two years before they receive a paycheck.
But by participating in the Nova program, CSMA only needs to provide mentorship and a place for the interns to work. They don't pay a dime. Instead, every two weeks Brenda Reyes-Sanchez, a summer program youth advisor for Nova, drops by to hand out checks.
"They're very excited and nervous," Reyes-Sanchez says of the interns on payday. "They've never seen a paycheck before."
Simply opening their first paycheck is a learning experience, Reyes-Sanchez says. She and other Nova staff explain to the kids how their earnings are taxed by state and federal government, and help counsel the kids on how to manage their money. Reyes-Sanchez says many Nova interns have used their earnings to buy a cell phone or school clothes.
The money used to fund the program comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal assistance program.
These funds have provided Nova with more than $675,000 for this summer's youth jobs program. With that money, Nova can pay 180 youth and young adults at 41 companies and organizations in northern Santa Clara County. The internships are in a wide range of professions, including law enforcement, administration, health care, auto repair and information technology. The program had such high demand this summer that between 75 and 100 applicants were turned away, according to the program's manager.
All the participants in the Nova program come from homes currently receiving benefits through the TANF-funded CalWORKs, which provides child care services and financial support to struggling families. If the kids aren't chipping in to help mom and dad, they may "just be enjoying a burger at a burger joint," Reyes-Sanchez says. "Some of these youth don't have that luxury."
Cassandra plans on using the money she earns to cover her cheerleading fees next year, which she estimates will be about $1,200. Like most youth in the program, she works approximately 35 hours each week, earning $10 per hour. When the program ends on August 13, Cassandra will have earned about $2,000 after taxes.
Aside from the paycheck, Cassandra says she feels that her experience in the program will give her a leg up in the future.
"I want to be someone professional and really successful," she says, "This job is teaching me a lot of responsibility. It's a good start."
Since beginning three weeks ago, Cassandra says she has opened her first bank account and improved her communication skills.
"Communication is such a big part of this job," says Ross, who supervises Cassandra and the other Nova interns working for the CSMA's summer camp.
Ross says the Nova aides needed a lot of direction at first. "Doing a good job has all this gray area," she says. Unlike a test in school, "there isn't one right way to do it."
She says gaining the confidence to make a move, independent of their supervisors, is the first thing the aides have to learn.
"I think this environment teaches them those first steps," Ross says. "They continue to need direction, but they are discovering their own strengths and abilities to take initiative."
Jennifer Springer, youth services manager at Nova, says she hopes the program will "give the most marginalized youth the critical and relevant job skills needed to prepare them to be a part of our future job force, and to help them and their families achieve economic self-sufficiency."
"Understanding the world of work helps the youth understand the applications of what they are learning in school," Springer says.
She also hopes the Nova kids will "get to know themselves," and get a sense of what does and does not interest them.
"Part of this experience is exposing them to more occupations, so they know what's out there," Springer says. "There are thousands of jobs out there. There are choices that they get to make."
Cassandra has already begun to zero in on what she wants to do by eliminating teaching from the list. It's not that she doesn't like the kids, she says. It's that she wants to find a career that will allow her to pursue her interest in biology. "I was thinking maybe I'd like to be a pediatrician," she says.
The way Reyes-Sanchez sees it, the earlier kids start thinking about what they want to do with their lives, the better. She doesn't believe that by giving the children a taste for making money early that they will be tempted to forgo higher educations. On the contrary, she says, "They're realizing, 'I can't be making $10 an hour and survive. I need to be making more than that.' And they're seeing that college is the path to making that kind of money."
Cassandra, at least, seems convinced that higher education is an essential component in her future. She says she "definitely" plans on going to college. "That's one of my main goals."