Bright Idea: Peer Outreach Programs Provide a Stepping Stone to Future Employment

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Photograph of two young people working together.

It’s a common dilemma for young people looking for a first job: How to land a position when they’ve got no employment experience. Three runaway and homeless youth programs in Washington, DC, are solving the problem by hiring young people to work on their street outreach teams.

The peer outreach workers employed by Sasha Bruce YouthWork, Latin American Youth Center and Covenant House play a vital role in contacting hard-to-reach street youth. And by working side-by-side with adults, they gain valuable skills like how to interview for a position and how to manage their work schedules.

“It’s difficult to get any job experience right now, and this type of work is especially valuable for youth who want to go into social and human services,” says Dan Davis coordinator of Sasha Bruce’s street outreach initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods.

Only in its second year, LAYC’s program has already paid off for several youth, helping them move on to opportunities they otherwise might not have qualified for. “Two of our peer educators went on to secure jobs with nonprofits in the field they were interested in, and a third got into AmeriCorps,” says Jacob Newman, who coordinates the center’s street outreach program.

Davis, Newman and Anthony Greene of Sasha Bruce shared with us some of the ways peer outreach programs can be used to prepare youth for future work.

Job Applications 101

Knowing how to sell themselves and be passionate about a job opportunity will help youth whether their next interview is at a nonprofit organization, a government agency or a fast-food joint. Sasha Bruce’s thorough application process includes five interviews with staff, managers and peer educators, as well as a month-long trial period volunteering as an outreach worker. 

Newman agrees that it’s important to put the onus on the young people to put in a strong application.  “We look to see who’s responsible in submitting, who’s following up, and who can really communicate the reasons they want to be a part of the program.” Most youth who apply are accepted, but even if a youth doesn’t get a position, they’ve practiced interviewing and learned the importance of first, second and sometimes third impressions.

Working Role Models

Mentors at work are critical, especially for young employees learning the ropes, Greene says. By its nature, street outreach work inherently provides youth with mentoring, because youth are always paired with adult outreach workers. The adults model how to be a good employee, and youth learn how to be part of a team.

Davis says supervisors of peer outreach workers can also take on a supportive, advisory role. “The big difference between young outreach workers and adult staff is that they can come straight to me,” he says.  “I have an open door policy whenever they need anything.”

Opportunities to Grow

Newman and Davis stress that peer outreach workers need to be given opportunities to advance and develop their unique skills. For example, formerly homeless youth can be tapped for their knowledge of where to go for services. Technically savvy youth – or those who express an interest in becoming more tech savvy – can take the lead on their program’s social media presence.

Youth could also be asked to identify new outreach sites or represent the program on government planning committees. All of these experiences help youth flesh out their resumes and demonstrate to future employers their willingness to tackle challenges and take on responsibility.

Serious Business

While Davis generally lets youth set their own schedules, he says youth workers should put some structure in place so that shifts will be filled.

“No one wants to do outreach on a Friday,” he says. But by having to show up on a weekend, youth learn a lesson even seasoned employees struggle with: Work isn’t always fun.

“At the end of the day it’s a work development opportunity for them, and the onus is on them to do their job,” he says. “If they’re not doing it, then they’ve just lost their job.”

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