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Future bleak for youth job program

Published Sep. 16, 2005

If you recently called the county's health department office in Spring Hill, you probably spoke to Springstead High School graduate Edmundo Stefany.

Stefany, who will enter Pasco-Hernando Community College next month, has been busy working the phones, listening to patients' problems, translating Spanish, typing blood sample forms and logging addresses into a computer _ all experiences he figures will help him toward his career goal of entering medical school and becoming a doctor.

"I learned a lot of things," said 19-year-old Stefany, who grew up in the Bronx in New York and moved to Spring Hill with his family two years ago. "It gives me an experience that I can use later on in my future. . . . It teaches you responsibility."

For Stefany and 320 other young people, Friday marked the end of what could be the last year for the respected summer youth program operated by the Citrus-Hernando Private Industry Council.

Financed through the federal Job Training Partnership Act, the program has for the last 13 years provided local low-income youths, from 14 to 21 years old, with vocational training and summer jobs aimed at preparing them for the rigors of the work force.

The students are paid minimum wage and work 30 hours a week for six weeks in various clerical and maintenance jobs at non-profit organizations and government agencies.

Due to cutbacks in federal funding, however, the youth program probably will be discontinued next year, said Lee Ellzey, director of the Pasco-Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership.

The partnership recently opened a one-stop career center at the North Campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College that replaces the Private Industry Council. The council's office in the Candlelight Plaza in Brooksville will close soon.

The $625-million summer youth program is among several domestic social programs, such as Head Start and Tech Prep, that have been at the center of heated budget battles in Washington, D.C.

In its zeal to cut the federal deficit, Congress nearly ended funding for the summer youth program this year. Lawmakers, however, later reinserted funding after lobbying from the Florida Association of Counties and other groups. Hernando and Citrus received $300,000, 40 percent less than last year, when the program provided jobs for 425 youths.

But Ellzey, the former administrator of the local industry council, isn't counting on funding next year, even though money is in President Clinton's proposed budget and the program has the support of most congressional Democrats, including Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon.

Thurman said Saturday she will fight to keep funding for the summer youth program, which she credits for helping to keep at-risk students in school and preparing them for the work force.

"A lot of us are very strong supporters," Thurman said. "The president has been a very strong supporter of summer youth and the whole issue of job training. Here we went through welfare reform . . . This is an opportunity to have youth participate and understand the work ethic."

Ellzey said: "This is among various domestic programs that have been under siege. Typically it's those programs that don't have a constituency that are the ones that get pounded because they don't stand up and they don't vote."

That is a shame, he said, because the summer job training has made a difference in many young peoples' lives.

"We read various articles that people are always complaining about the lack of a work ethic and breaking welfare cycles," he said. "This is one of the ways to address those problems, by providing low-income youth with work experience."

Coyitita Roberts, a 17-year-old Hernando High School student, agrees. A participant in the program, she has spent the last several weeks doing clerical work in the communications office at the Southwest Florida Water Management District's headquarters on U.S. 41. Roberts, of Brooksville, wants to be a nurse like her mother.

"I think (the summer youth program) should be continued," Roberts said. "I know a lot of people that depend on the program. It gives them something to do while they earn money. It gives them a place to turn to instead of the street, especially in the summertime because everybody is out of school."

For Denise Veverka, a 16-year-old single parent who wants to be a medical technician, the summer youth program is a "big investment in your future." Veverka worked as a receptionist in the X-ray department at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.

"You learn how to deal with people," Veverka said. "Even though a person can be yelling and screaming, you learn to stay positive. You learn how to do a bunch of things at once. . . . I'm learning medical technology."

Some private employers are upset about the anticipated demise of a program they see as beneficial to them and society.

"I think it's a disgrace," said Gus Guadagnino, past president of the Hernando Manufacturers' Association and president-elect of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. "The youth is the future. To use (money from the youth program) as a savings on the (federal) deficit is ridiculous. There are other areas of fat."

Efforts like the summer youth program are valuable to employers because they teach skills and behavior that cannot be taught in a classroom and that are crucial to success in the workplace, Guadagnino said.

"They help the employers; they help the people that are going out into the real world to look for jobs," he said.

Dick Buckingham, board member of the Hernando County Fair Association, has for several years worked with the industry council's summer youth program.

"I think it's most unfortunate," he said of the program's bleak future. "This gives the kids an exposure to the workplace and what employers expect out of them. . . . I think it builds character in these kids."