Summer work by teenagers benefits their wallets -- and city

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Friday was "graduation" day for about 270 teenagers whose six-week stint working for the city earned them a collective $347,490.

The value of their time may be incalculable in their own lives, but to the city, the same number of workers at 30 hours a week for six weeks would have cost almost $985,000 at regular city pay rates.

Not only does the summer youth corps supplement city work crews doing work unions don't object to, but it's work that might not get done any other way.

"They're doing jobs for us we don't have the manpower to do," said Guy Costa, director of public works.

This summer's youth employment program, for which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl doubled funding with support from foundations, took some teens into the woods for the first time and gave most of them their first paychecks.

On their last day of work Thursday, a crew in Arlington said they will spend some or most of their pay on back-to-school clothes. Josiah Fleming III, 15, of Carrick, said, "I have $25 in a savings account."

The Student Conservation Association runs the program and has worked with the city for the past six years, taking youth into parks, wooded slopes and neighborhoods to clear debris and weeds, stabilize and build trails, plant gardens, maintain flower beds and build benches and footbridges.

Their 30 hours of work a week are combined with classes in managing money and job opportunities.

Paid at minimum wage, the teenagers are part of a growing movement of city residents who have worked for little or nothing but the emotional payback.

Mike Gable, the deputy director of public works for the city, said many neighborhood groups ask to take on work out of love for their neighborhoods. He cited Boris Weinstein, the founder of Citizens Against Litter in Shadyside, whose organization has regional affiliations.

Most neighborhood groups organize monthly clean-ups. Some groups have adopted city lots and kept them flowering. Nonprofits, such as Friends of the Riverfront, remove debris from riverbanks and maintain trails.

Volunteer groups have their own insurance and sign waivers against liability, and they are prohibited from operating power tools and painting city property, said Mr. Gable. The city picks up bagged trash and supplies tools.

"It's always the same groups," he said, "but every year there are new ones."

On the streets in their chartreuse T-shirts, the Student Conservation crews get attention.

"People ask what I'm doing, and they ask me if I get paid," says Mr. Fleming, "and I say, 'The pay doesn't matter.' " To the instant reaction of his co-horts, he says, "I mean ..."

"I appreciate the pay," says Cidney Christian, 16, of Garfield. "I tell everyone I know about this job."

Josh Lin, 17, a student at Schenley High, says, "I love this job."

"He said 'love,' " says Ms. Christian, passing her grin down a line of cohorts resting on a felled log.

"That's why I came back a second year," Mr. Lin continued. "Instead of doing nothing in the summer, this was doing something meaningful."

For one thing, their contribution to the city's trails has addressed the problem of steep slope erosion, said Mr. Gable.

Walt Burlack, director of the Student Conservation Association's local chapter, said conservation careers are growing nationally and that park and forest services are looking for minority youth and women.

"We want to assure the city of real value, so these kids do real work," he said. "They work hard," with six teenagers for every one crew leader. Crew leaders are college students or recent college graduates.

"A lot of these kids had never worked with tools before," he said. "Some have never worked outside or been in the woods."

In 2007, more than 800 teenagers applied for 150 jobs. This year, more than 1,200 applications arrived for 270 openings. The city sends mailings to every ZIP code.

"We got a mailing," said Mr. Fleming. "My mom told me I was going to work and that I was going to do this. She wanted me out of the house." It turned out to be a good thing, he said. "They taught me a lot of stuff."


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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