PATERSON, NJ - Now 20 years old, Thalia, an on again off again resident of Paterson most of her life, has a simple plan: go to college for business or criminal justice and then get a stable job.

However, for the aspiring entrepreneur, her vision wasn’t always so clear. 

Leaving high school at 16, Thalia acknowledged to TAPinto Paterson that she was “reckless” as a teenager, she didn’t see the value of going to school, saw it mainly as a “waste of time.” After moving in with a friend, spending a couple years drifting between parties, and two stints of living in the Dominican Republic, she realized she was “struggling” and had made mistakes.

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Now married and enrolled in Paterson’s Adult High School, Thalia believes her life is “back on track.”

Thalia is one of 42 participants of the Summer Youth Employment Pilot Program (SYEPP) funded by the New Jersey Department of Labor (NJDOL) and hosted by the Passaic County One Stop Career Center.

According to a statement issued by the NJDOL when the funding was announced, the SYEPP seeks to mitigate youth poverty, unemployment, and crime rates by providing in-school and out-of-school youth, ages 16-24, with summer employment meant to encourage a successful transition to the workforce. 

“This program will help our young workers take their first steps of long career path this summer,” Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said at the time.

Locally, Lauren Murphy, the director of the Passaic County One-Stop said, the eight week program has put young people to work in a range of jobs including at day care centers, funeral homes, pharmacies, non-profits, and, in Thalia’s case, Community Outreach Services Inc.

Working 25 hours a week, and earning $10.50 an hour, the program gives the young participants, many of them high school dropouts, an opportunity to be productive members of the workforce.

“It’s about giving them focus and opportunity,” Murphy said. “They are here because they want to do something more, they want to overcome the obstacles that have been placed in front of them, and because they want to succeed in life.”

“At the One-Stop it is out job to give them all the tools necessary to do that.”

In addition to learning on-the job skills such as navigating pay schedules, attendance, and dress code, program participants, through a series of Friday sessions held on the One-Stop office, cover soft skills training such as financial literacy, resume building, entrepreneurship skills, diversity training, and prevention of workplace harassment training.

On the second to last Friday, with TAPinto Paterson in attendance, program participants were learning about dealing with trauma, a topic, PJ Wenger, a longtime mental health expert whose counseling experience spans a wide variety of settings, said is important because knowing how to deal and respond to difficult circumstances allows those impacted by them to “be more successful.”

Considering the sensitivity of the issues they have faced, and desiring to maintain the trust of the those in the room, Wenger said that during the session participants had discussed facing mental, physical, and emotional abuse; rape, being diplaced from their homes; hearing gunsots; and experiencing deaths in their families.

Working under the auspices of Rutgers University’s School of Mental Health Professions’ Northeast and Carribean Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, Wenger led a number of activities, ultimately aimed at getting attendees to talk about the difficulties they have faced.

“Part of dealing with trauma is giving it a voice,” she said.

“If they don’t work through it they will be unsuccessful, they will continue to respond in negative ways,” Wenger told TAPinto Paterson. The activities, she added, were aimed at helping them “shift their thinking process,” giving them better skills to be successful.

For Thalia, it seemed, the activities, as well as the on-the-job training, was working, saying that her perspective had already been changed. Now, with the program heading into its final week, she sees herself as “more prepared for the real world.”


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