A new, free vocational and educational program, called Moving Forward, is launching this fall for young adults on the Island. Focus groups will be held May 19-20 to gather feedback from potential participants and their families about the services needed.
The pilot program is being spearheaded by Wendy Hersh, president of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, and Nikki Leopold, the executive director of Island Kids. It aims to help teens and young adults navigate the personal, social, and emotional growth necessary to reach their full potential and find meaningful employment. The program moves through three stages, each designed to help participants gain the skills and confidence they need to become successful in the workforce.
For Hersh, the project has been seven years in the making. She says she first had the idea after witnessing the struggles of her own son and his friends.
“They hang out on the street; they have no motivation to move forward; it’s like they’re lost,” says Hersh, a certified rehabilitation counselor and a licensed mental health counselor. “Misery loves company and all the Island keeps giving them is recreation.”
She says she brought the idea to Charlie DeFino, former executive director of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, years ago. “That’s really where this belongs, in a teen center. Charlie was thrilled. I brought people in from the training programs; we made agreements. He was painting an office for me. I had all of this information sent to me there. Then, one day, out of the blue, he said, ‘No one’s interested.’ That was it. He didn’t even return any of the stuff.”
Hersh says she also approached Doryne Isley, property manager for Roosevelt Landings.
“At that time,” Hersh said, “the program was marketed for kids at risk. I phrased it like that because I feel that any young adult is at risk if they’re not doing anything with their life. Doryne didn’t like the words ‘at risk’ because she didn’t want anyone ‘at risk’ in her building.”
With two rejections under her belt, Hersh dropped the idea. “I have a full time job; I was just volunteering my services. So I backed off.”
Then, while stuffing eggs for the 2017 Island Egg Hunt, Hersh and Leopold got to talking about youth on the Island. Leopold, a longtime advocate for children and families on the Island, shared that she too had dreams of offering a vocational program for young adults.
“Our conversation started because we both knew this is what the Island really needs,” says Hersh of the fortuitous conversation. “It’s easy to just give people recreation. It takes a lot of work to motivate and help someone change their life around.”
Moving Forward coordinators Wendy Hersh (left) and Nikki Leopold.
The program is designed in three phases. For the first four to six weeks, participants will move through a series of training sessions and support groups. Programming would include resume writing, interview skills, as well as referrals for substance abuse, mental health, and criminal justice issues. Participants would also receive educational support and preparation for the TASC (Testing Assessing Secondary Completion Exam), formerly known as the GED; post-incarceration workforce reentry in collaboration with the Fortune Society; fatherhood programs run through Harlem Justice and LaGuardia College; as well as counseling on work behaviors and attitudes, and time management.
The second phase is an internship which Moving Forward would help participants obtain. Internship partners will include local businesses and institutions, including Cornell Tech, with whom they have a close working relationship.
Job training is the third phase. “We are trying to keep everything within the immediate and surrounding community, including Astoria and Long Island City,” says Hersh. “We will see what employers would require, for example, a driver’s license to drive a bakery truck.”
They already have commitments from three area employers: QBI offers training in basic maintenance, painting, plumbing, occupational safety, and health administration; Ferrari Driving School offers driving training, as well as forklift operation and warehouse safety training, The Resource Training and Counseling Center boasts options such as Certified Addiction Recovery Coach (CARC)/Peer Advocate training.
Hersh will provide program oversight. In addition, Moving Forward will work with volunteer or per diem staff with expertise in the areas of vocational rehabilitation counseling, substance abuse counseling (CASAC), group facilitation, and mentoring.
But first, say Hersh and Leopold, they need to know what the community wants from the program.
“We don’t want to bring stuff here that no one is looking for,” says Leopold.
They will hold focus groups on May 19 and 20 to ask prospective participants directly. They’ll speak with young women and young men separately, and also include parents. “We want them to have a stake in it, too,” says Hersh.
The young people who participate will get paid. Hersh says the group is working with two long-term Islanders, one of whom is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, to perform outreach to the potential participants. They grew up here, too, she says, “They understand the dynamic.”
The pilot program will initially support six to eight participants and will start in the fall. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.