Local students get a jump start on life

| 14 May 2012 | 05:26

NEWTON — At first glance, Joshua Grafeld of Wantage and Shannon Bentley of Newton don’t seem to have much in common. Joshua loves the outdoors, and has worked as a butcher, a camp counselor and an archery instructor. Petite Shannon once dreamed of becoming a tattoo artist. Their paths crossed at the Youth Connections program at Project Self-Sufficiency, an outreach effort targeted at young people who have either dropped out of school, or who are high school graduates struggling with literacy issues. The common thread between 21-year-old Joshua and 18-year-old Shannon is their status as high school drop-outs. The free Youth Connections program at Project Self-Sufficiency is designed for youth who are no longer enrolled in school, or those who have graduated from high school but who may be struggling with literacy. Youth Connections helps guide participants through GED testing, job training, and placement at a work site, in college or the military. Once a participant is accepted into the program, they can expect to undergo a battery of assessment testing followed by help with attaining their GED, life skills training, pre-employment training, and other remedial education efforts. Childcare, lunch and limited transportation assistance is available to all participants. Upon completion of their education, participants will be placed in internships, followed by placement in paid employment, college or the military. Follow up support will be provided by Project Self-Sufficiency staff to ensure that the newly-minted workers are faring well in their positions. “High school was never really my thing,” said Shannon, who dropped out during the last semester of her senior year of high school. “I never had a problem with grades, but I had a lot of family issues, so I was out a lot.” Joshua also experienced prolonged absences from high school, causing him to fall far behind his classmates. Like many others who have dropped out of high school, both Shannon and Joshua floundered for awhile; Shannon hung around the house, while Joshua spent several years working at various odd jobs. The Youth Connections program’s flexibility was a big selling point for both Shannon and Joshua. “The hardest part of the program for me was balancing work and classes,” said Joshua, who had to leave early in order to go to work at the Sussex County YMCA. “The program is very flexible and they work with you.” Shannon agreed, saying, “They are really cooperative and understanding of your situation. They help you to address your weak points. I felt like it was kind of like being home-schooled, in a way. They showed you how to do things that you didn’t really understand. It was a good program.” As part of the Youth Connections program, Joshua worked as an intern at a local camp for children with diabetes. He learned how to administer payroll, raise funds, handle paperwork and other tasks associated with running a camp. He plans to attend Sussex County Community College in the fall and eventually wants to work as a Camp Director. “This is a very supportive program and everything is free. It will help you start your life. It opened up another door for me to start over, and it helped me to establish connections which I will need some day.” Shannon entered the Youth Connections program with vague ambitions of becoming a tattoo artist, but changed her mind once she met with a career counselor at the Youth Connections program and began to seriously consider her options. She has enrolled in Dover Business School, where she will be pursuing a degree as a medical assistant. In an added twist, she will be attending the program alongside her mother who has decided to pursue the same degree. In the meantime, Shannon will begin her Youth Connections internship at a local art gallery. Both mother and daughter are set to start the medical assistant program at Dover Business School during the summer. “She is proud that I am doing something with my life,” added Shannon. Youth Connections program participants must be local residents between the ages of 16 to 21, who fall below the federal poverty guidelines. Male participants are required to register with the Selective Service System in order to qualify. To apply for the Youth Connections program call 973-940-3500.