March 12, 2006
The kids in the middle
Special to The Seattle Times
BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
YouthForce's small downtown Seattle office is about the last place you'd expect to find Donald Trump.
Sure enough, though, there the billionaire business mogul stands, perched atop a ledge and surrounded by electric hues of paint that would make Martha Stewart cower behind a peck of pressed pansies.
Trump is the most imposing figure in the room, even as an 8-inch-tall, plastic action figure that when you a press a button, says: "Never give up, under any circumstances" — the YouthForce mantra.
But the most impressive feats in this office are those turned in by Jeffrey Stein and his YouthForce staff.
Here, they transform initiative into opportunity. Founded by Stein in 1998, nonprofit YouthForce is funded in part by the Allen Foundation, Gates Foundation, Medina Foundation and Norcliffe Foundation, that connects high-school students with paid internships at top Seattle companies. The goal is to teach motivated, underserved and underrepresented teens skills they might not otherwise get the chance to learn or cultivate.
Stein, who has a master's degree in education, said the idea for the program was spawned by his own teaching experience.
"If you walk into any classroom, you'll see the kids in the first few rows," Stein said. "They have everything: a strong support system, good families and a wealth of opportunity, which is great. Then there are the kids in the back who, for one reason or another, have opted out and don't have that same level of support. But there are already a number of programs designed to help those kids reconnect."
YouthForce: For more information about the services provided by YouthForce, go to
www.teenjobs.org or call 206-344-3310.
Stein was worried about the rows of students in the middle of the classroom.
"There are lots of good kids out there who don't get the attention they need," he said. "They don't get the accolades, but they aren't disruptive either, so they're in danger of becoming anonymous. Through mentorship programs, service learning and job placement, our goal is to counsel and engage those kids in the middle."
It was four years ago when Tina Lo, then an Ingraham High School student, first stepped into the colorful YouthForce office.
She had an interest in accounting, and with the help of YouthForce, landed a job as an accounting assistant at ZymoGenetics, one of YouthForce's main partners. She worked 15 hours a week, making copies and filing. For Lo, YouthForce offered a welcome alternative to the typical teen gig.
"Before I came to ZymoGenetics I worked at a department store," she said. "Unfortunately, the sales industry wasn't really my thing."
Her thing was accounting.
Now, at 21, Lo has graduated from intern status and is a permanent Zymo employee. She works part time and supervises other YouthForce interns while pursuing an accounting degree at the University of Washington.
"I think the most important thing YouthForce taught me was how to be organized and meet deadlines," Lo said. "The skills I learned on the job have also helped me in school."
School, Stein said, is the focus of the program.
"A lot of times the typical high-school job requires students to work long hours, or work late on school nights," he said. "Our goal is to set up a manageable work schedule so that the focus remains on academics."
As a result, both students and YouthForce's partner companies say they've benefited.
"We were a bit apprehensive at first," said Patti Vandenburgh of ZymoGenetics, who began working with Stein six years ago.
"Jeff called and asked us to give them a try, and luckily we did. We've been amazed at the capabilities of these interns ever since."
Stein said the key is in finding the right match.
"We don't force the kids to do anything they don't want to do," he said.
"Some kids call or come into the office and just aren't ready to make a commitment. And that's fine. What we want to do is find a match that will be mutually beneficial for our interns and partners so that everyone has a positive experience."
As proof of just such an experience, Stein proudly displays a picture of four students standing alongside Costco Chairman Jeffrey Brotman.
Brotman met with the group recently to share his own story with the students and to encourage them to keep working toward their goals.
"He was nice enough to meet with them and tell them that it's possible to become successful even if you come from humble beginnings," as did Brotman, the son of immigrants, Stein said.
Xuyen Nguyen, an 18-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School and a YouthForce intern, was among the group that spoke with Brotman.
"Spending time with a group of teenagers may seem insignificant to some, but for me, every minute offered inspiration and advice that I will certainly use as I continue through life," she said.
Nguyen, who plans to attend college and pursue her interest in business, said YouthForce has helped improve her focus.
"Before I started working here two years ago I had a blurry image of what I wanted to do with my life," she said. "Now, with the experience I've gained, things have become a whole lot clearer."
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