On August 15, Historic Ithaca’s Work Preserve program wrapped up its six-week summer session. The job-training program for teenagers and young adults with barriers to employment gave participants hands-on experience working in the Significant Elements architectural salvage retail store. Sara Johnson, who manages Significant Elements, oversees the program. Work Preserve Education and Outreach Coordinator Suzanne Onodera and Work Preserve Warehousing and Traditional Skills Trainer Peter Walz work directly with Work Preserve participants as trainers and mentors. Sara teaches all facets of inventory, Peter is the tools guy, and Suzanne the social skills maven.
As a new component during this summer’s six-week program, Suzanne also took participants on field trips around Ithaca. They visited a construction site and spoke with tradespeople and washed windows at Stewart Park’s Large Pavilion. Participants learned what it takes to run a small business at Press Bay Alley’s Mama Said Hand Pies and saw the behind-the-scenes workings of an independent movie theater at Cinemapolis. The group attended a press conference and tour at the Ithaca City Cemetery, where they met Mayor Svante Myrick. Mayor Myrick later hosted them for an extended conversation at City Hall. Historic Ithaca staff guided participants on architectural history tours of the Commons and the Henry St. John Historic District.
I was lucky enough to hang out with the Work Preserve summer participants, enjoying soft serve ice cream at Sweet Melissa’s with them and chatting about the highlights of their summer experience. Read what they had to say about Work Preserve and its multifaceted approach to helping participants make the transition to employment.
- Jacob, 20, initially approached The Learning Web to get help finding a place to live. Told about Significant Elements and its mission to preserve history and save materials from the landfill, the history buff and Ithaca High School grad thought the Work Preserve program “would be a good fit” for him. Work Preserve, Jacob explained, is “a mixture of mentorship and on-the-job training.” Sara, Suzanne, and Peter taught him and the other Work Preserve participants specific, hands-on skills. For example, Peter showed Jacob how to use a handsaw to do a V-cut and then supervised him as he carried out the task. Suzanne taught them to wear safety equipment and often shared pointers about more efficient ways to approach jobs. As a result, “I think the biggest [outcome] for me is being ready for challenges, to take on new projects,” Jacob concluded. He also feels more comfortable asking for help when he needs it after being in an environment in which he could safely ask questions. “It’s a good entry-level position. I wish I had this as my first job experience rather than jumping in [to fast-food service]. I wish I had known about it years ago. It would have been a much smoother transition to working.” Looking ahead to the future, Jacob has relied on help from Suzanne with his resume and knowing what to expect from employers. He hopes to land a spot in the Finger Lakes ReUse Center’s ReSet Technology program.
- “It’s a satisfying process from pickup [of donated items] to sale,” explained Michael, a 20-year-old recent graduate of Ithaca High School who was referred to the Work Preserve program through Challenge Workforce Solutions. He gained confidence learning many aspects of retail, including pricing, inventory, and sorting. He derived particular satisfaction from figuring out the best spot for merchandise. Michael also valued the range of tools he learned to use and practical tips he got about DIY tasks, including removing nails from wood without damaging a piece. Michael is clearly a people person, and he explained that the most enjoyable part of the job for him was meeting new people and the most valuable skill he learned was working as part of a team. He plans to keep in touch with the people he met in the program. He recommends the Work Preserve program to others for just those reasons. “They would have a lot to learn about working with new people, learning to get along with others in the workforce, and they would have to work with them and not against them.” Overall the program was a positive experience for Michael, including the field trips that rounded out his work experience. “I feel like the field trips were very educational. I got to learn about how people start their own business, how to run for mayor, how we all struggle with our own things.” Michael hopes to land a job in retail after his stint at Significant Elements.
- Personable and outgoing, Thomas is a rising senior at Ithaca High School and an aspiring graphic designer. Referred through the Youth Employment Service (YES) program, Thomas gained “a sense of independence” from his summer Work Preserve experience. He learned to be on time, follow a routine, and complete assigned tasks and take the initiative to ask for additional ones. Although going on donation pick-ups was his favorite part of the job, he enjoyed being in the workshop and learning to use tools to fix up items to be sold in the store. “This job prepares you for a permanent job,” he concluded, giving examples of past participants who the program has prepared and placed in jobs. “I got confidence in looking for a job.” Thomas felt that the field trips were a welcome reward for hard work, and he had fun with the architecture tours of the Commons and the Henry St. John Historic District. They gave him a new perspective on the city where he was born and raised. He was astonished that Mayor Myrick took time out of his schedule to meet with them and felt like they were treated like celebrities. Thomas wasn’t inspired to go into politics himself, but he enjoyed the story Myrick told about how he decided to run for mayor.
- Initially not enthusiastic about having a summer job, Emmet, a rising sophomore at Charles O. Dickerson High School in Trumansburg, grew to appreciate the creative task of setting up displays and even noticed that he had gotten physically stronger from hauling cabinets, lumber, furniture, and other store inventory. “I feel more confident finding a job because of this job,” Emmet concluded. Not only does he have something to put on his resume, but he absorbed the message Suzanne continually stressed about basic social skills as a key to job readiness. Suzanne had Emmet, who seems naturally reserved and serious, and the other Work Preserve participants practice introducing themselves to a wide range of people on the field trips to community sites. The field trips exposed Emmet to new experiences, and he conceded that they were fun. “I had never done any of those things before. I didn’t know anything about the mayor before I met him. . . . His story was interesting. Going to Press Bay Alley was fun.” Although the tasty hand pies may have been the main draw, the visit to Mama Said Hand Pies also interested him because he liked learning about how a small business is run.
- The youngest of the Work Preserve summer workers, 15-year-old Brinton was enthusiastic about the range of experiences the job offered. Mastering such social skills as answering phones, introducing himself, working as part of a team, and solving real-world problems “gave me a lot more confidence and a reference point. I know what to expect from work,” he explained. Brinton felt that Work Preserve exposed him to all the components it takes to run a retail business like Significant Elements, from mundane cleaning tasks to pricing items for sale. He approached each task with a sense of enjoyment, noting how fun it was to go out on donation pick-ups and to meet the people who gave the items. Brinton also noted that “all of the field trips were nice learning experiences.” Overall Brinton would recommend Work Preserve to others looking for a job-training program. “You shouldn’t be nervous,” he advised. “You’ll have a great time, get paid, and the coworkers are nice.”
To support the Work Preserve program’s ongoing efforts to help young adults make the transition to employment and financial independence, please click here to make your gift now.
Additional funding for Work Preserve has been provided by the City of Ithaca Community Development Block Grant program, Park Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and Social Ventures.