DENVER — A unique program is giving young adults on-the-job training while also working to solve food insecurity in an underserved neighborhood.
Youth Employment Academy (YEA), located just steps from the 10th and Osage light rail station in Denver, helps more than 250 young people each year.
“Our mission at YEA is to really break the generational cycle of poverty by providing employment and education for young adults ages 14 to 24,” said Annie Hancock, executive director of YEA.
The program empowers youth to meet their life and career goals with the help of financial advisers and mental health support.
“How do we teach them the life skills to then be able to make these decisions on their own and really be self-sufficient and really work towards independence in their own lives,” Hancock said.
YEA provides paid internships through three programs — Osage Café & Mercado, Decatur Fresh and Arts Street.
China Omenai has been an intern at the Arts Street Program since June.
“I definitely feel like Arts Street gave me the skills that I needed to go forward. Especially being a young adult by myself, it's really scary navigating the world when you feel like you don't have people who understand you,” Omenai said.
Omenai said participating in the Mariposa Street mural project allowed her to learn how to support herself with her art.
“It's kind of hard and surprising to think, 'How do I put my artistic spin on this project but still give our client exactly what they want?'” Omenai said.
YEA is not just a nonprofit. Osage Café & Mercado and Decatur Fresh are real businesses. However, the programs put community over profit.
“The biggest difference between Osage Café and maybe other restaurants around the area is that our primary focus and mission is to support our community with providing quality food at a cheaper price,” said sous chef Nick Depalma.
Depalma has been with the program for nearly a year. He said they fill more than 200 food orders some days.
“I love the high-pressure situations that I get thrown into around here. Also, just being able to work with my hands and gain more culinary experience with a wonderful mentor and friend and executive chef here,” Depalma said.
A September report from the National Academies of Sciences found expanding occupational training programs to address intergenerational poverty would have positive impacts on the entire nation.
Nonprofits like YEA rely on donors to keep their doors open.
“They are revenue-generating businesses; however, they also function in social enterprises. And so we want to create spaces for the community to be able to access food, where we're able to provide these internships, we're able to find job opportunities for residents that are living in this community,” Hancock said.
Youth Employment Academy is one of the nonprofits you can help support this Colorado Gives Day on Dec. 5. To donate, click here.