SYEP first began in New York City in 1963, and has been run by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) since 2003. The agency partners with more than 50 providers to give young people ages 14 to 24 minimum wage jobs at public, nonprofit and private companies.
One of the city’s providers is Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, which accepts 1,015 youth into their program, according to unit manager Daniel Ng.
For six weeks, Catholic Charities trains them in work readiness and places them in more than 200 sites throughout Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
“For the majority of them, this is their first job,” Ng said. “This is their first entryway into what the working world is like.”
Ng, who has worked with Catholic Charities for over a decade, said the city randomly selects 1,015 people out of a pool of 3,300 applicants. The youth are divided into two group, one for 14 and 15 year olds, and another for workers ages 16 through 24.
Despite the varying ages and experience levels of each participant, Ng said they try to match each with the right job site. Partnering sites with Catholic Charities include child care sites, senior centers, clerical offices, retail stores and even government offices.
Each participant is paid minimum wage, and works 20 to 25 hours a week depending on their age and the employer.
“We try to place them based on what their interest is, and we try not to get them too far from where they live,” Ng said. “We aim for under 45 minutes.”
The only requirements to sign up for SYEP are to live in the city and be aged 14 to 24.
“This is an opportunity for them to try different venues,” Ng said. “Even if they are experienced, they can try something new.”
Catholic Charities also runs a new program initiated by DYCD called the Work, Learn and Grow (WLG) program. Youth who are part of WLG work 10 hours a week for 25 weeks.
Only previous SYEP participants within the last year who are in school are eligible to apply.
Ng, who oversees both SYEP and WLG, said with each passing year, he gets to “fine-tune” each program. Coming from a background in the arts, Ng said enjoys creating new procedures that improve the programming.
“We’re always trying to make it easier, better and streamline it so it’ll be a more pleasant experience for the youth,” he said. “In a good program, it’s definitely trying to be inspirational, trying to bring the most out of them as we can.”
Catholic Charities’ program tailors the experience differently. For the younger youth, there’s a bigger focus on work readiness and education. They receive five additional hours of education, where they discuss values and life goals, time management, financial literacy and career exploration.
For the 16 to 24 year olds, the program focuses on the “on-the-job” experience. They receive eight hours of training before the start of the program on resume writing, interviewing and financial literacy.
Ng said he even shares his personal journey to help the youth understand that a career path isn’t singular. The unit manager, who worked at Subway when he was 16, studied illustration and cartooning in college. A teacher told him about art therapy, a field that led him to an internship with Catholic Charities.
“That’s something I tell our participants, that you don’t know what’s going to open up a door,” he said. “Keep an open mind and take things as they come.
“I definitely didn’t know 15 years ago that I would be in this spot,” he added. “It’s something that developed and grew with interest and opportunities.”
Ng acknowledged that everybody learns “in their own way, in their own style and at their own time.” But SYEP provides an opportunity for them to learn, make mistakes and grow on the job, all while collecting a paycheck for the summer.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to have a positive experience, ushering them into what the working world is like,” Ng said.
Heaven Vera, a 15-year-old student from Red Hook, is in her second year with the summer youth program. She applied last year because she wanted to try something different, rather than traveling with her family like she normally does.
“I was like, ‘Why not take a chance and sign up for it?’” she said. “Plus you get money, so why wouldn’t you do it?”
She described her first summer as “overwhelming, but exciting.” She was placed at Catholic Charities’ downtown Brooklyn office, where she worked as Ng’s assistant. Vera said she liked the flexibility and Ng’s support for her throughout her time there.
“I learned to take more responsibility,” she said. “I think that as I progressed and moved on throughout the weeks, the more I learned, the more I felt confident to do things on my own.”
Vera said she did mostly office work, including taking phone calls and organizing files. She said she also learned how to dress and act in a professional setting.
She enjoyed the experience so much she applied again this summer. She was placed at Rapid Realty, where she helps design ads for the real estate company.
She drew many lessons from participating in SYEP, including how to prioritize spending her hard-earned money.
“It teaches you that every single pair of Jordans that comes out, you don’t need it. You want it, but you don’t need it,” she said. “But food and transportation, that’s what you need.”
She recommends the program to her fellow youth considering an opportunity for a first job, a new experience or just some extra cash.
“If you have nothing to do and you’re bored all day looking at your phone, why not go experience something brand new?” she said. “Take some chances.”