FLUSHING—Zaida Ayala described herself as a regular teenager who loved the movies, going shopping for clothes and hanging out on the beach with her friends.
In 2006, however, the Junction Boulevard resident said she got a wake-up call from her family.
“My mom basically told me that there had to be a more productive way to spend my time,” said Ayala, now 21 and a Queens College history major. “She wanted me to go to work.”
And off she went, working minimum wage for seven weeks each summer as part of the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, first as a clerical assistant at Elmhurst and Forest Hills hospitals before being chosen by the Queens Botanical Garden in 2009 as a greeter.
“I’d be walking around the garden, greeting people, telling them about the plants,” said Ayala, who returns to the Botanical Garden for the third year in a row to work as an admissions cashier.
Ayala is one of the 31,700 youth aged 14 to 24 employed in summer jobs around the Big Apple as part of the city's summer jobs program.
Competition for the spots was fierce with a whopping 132,000 youth entering the lottery this year, according to the program.
The numbers are on par with last year but are a far cry from the record numbers in 2009 where the recession forced the program to expand to accommodate 52,000 youth through the summer, said Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav.
Kicking off the start of this year’s Summer Youth Employment Program at the Queens Botanical Garden Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg compared summer work experience to learning how to ski.
“You can read a book about skiing, but you got to put some miles under those skis if you want to be good at it,” said the mayor, who added that his summer stints at a small electrical store in the city pushed him to pursue an engineering degree at Johns Hopkins University.
Both public and private funding make the city’s largest youth employment program possible—with the city committing $20 million and private donors chipping in $6.1 million this year, authorities said.
The youth are placed in high-growth sectors like healthcare, retail and hospitality, said Mullgrav, where in the short term the jobs would mean learning new skills and earning extra money for tuition, books and household expenses and in the longer term translate to “the first step toward a lifetime of success.”
At the Queens Botanical Garden, 35 new youth employees will be taking their place this summer as Garden Greeters, Horticultural Aides and Aides to the Children’s Garden.
“We know it’s hard for kids to get jobs right now, so we encourage them to apply,” said the botanical garden's Visitor Services Co-coordinator Regina Forlenza.
In Queens, selected youth will spend the next few weeks at Walgreens, the Flushing YMCA and various hospitals—filing, copying, making and taking notes to gather valuable work experience like Ayala.
“I’m more confident now, not so shy,” said the Queens College history major, adding that she spent the cash she earned on school supplies.
“I’ve also met so many people from different backgrounds," beamed Ayala, who hopes to become a teacher. "It’s exciting.”