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YMCA Opening Massive Center to Help 'Disconnected' Youth in Jamaica

QUEENS — Shakila Monk was 17 years old when she became pregnant and later dropped out of Jamaica High School to take care of her daughter.

“I was super scared and didn’t realize how much work it was,” Monk said. “It was very difficult being a teenage parent.”

Months later, while looking for work at a job center, she saw a poster advertising a 9-month YMCA program providing job training and GED classes. She quickly signed up.

“It gave me hope and helped me a lot,” said Monk, now 35, who learned how to refinish floors, light plumbing and plastering.

After finishing her course she got her first job as a cleaner at the Jamaica YMCA in the 1990s. She worked her way up and is now a property manager at the Prospect Park location.

Monk is one of thousands of high school dropouts over the past few decades in New York City who have later found it difficult to find a decent job. With that population in mind, the YMCA has teamed up with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT) — which specializes in employment and training programs — to create the new Y Roads initiative.

The effort will provide free services for young adults ages 16 to 24.

“It’s a full service disconnected youth center where everything is under one roof, from employment and training to education to mental health, to housing support, to recreation,” said Randy Peers, executive director at OBT.

The location for the initiative's first center, which will open on Jamaica Avenue in April and will serve about 300 young adults, was chosen because of its large number of disconnected youth, said Marty Forth, senior executive for youth and community engagement at the YMCA.

Disconnected youth are those who are not working or going to school, many of whom are high school dropouts, according to the Y's website.

Nearly 250,000 city youths in the age range that will be helped by the center are disconnected, the Y says. And more than 60 percent of the youth crime in the city is committed by disconnected youth, organizers say.

Another advantage is the proximity of the Jamaica YMCA facility, which can provide emergency housing.

The youth who will come to the Y Roads center will undergo an intake interview, allowing counselors to assess their needs.

“If the housing is the issue, we’ll work on housing. If childcare is an issue, we’ll work on that. If it’s simply that they didn’t like traditional high school, but another form of education would work for them, we’ll get them into that,” Forth said.

Some of the young adults seeking help at the center will be directed to the OBT program, Forth said.

OBT has two other locations in Sunset Park and Bushwick in Brooklyn. During a 20-week long job training program with integrated GED services, young adults learn business skills and get academics in a vocational context, Peers said.

The OBT program requires discipline from young adults, who are expected to be on time and dress professionally, Peers said.

Options include classes in business math, computer skills and public speaking. Students also meet with professionals from companies such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs and do community work, including helping at homeless shelters and senior centers.

“It shows them that no matter what your circumstances, you can give back to the community,” Peers said. “And they can put it on their resume.”

If all goes well, Peers said, the program will end with students receiving GEDs, vocational credentials and job placements. In the past, graduates landed jobs as clerks, bank tellers and in customers service.

The OBT program has a 93 percent completion rate. The job placement rate is 72 percent, Peers added.

The Jamaica YMCA will also provide recreational facilities for program participants, including basketball courts, a gym and a pool.

“To feel good physically is very important,” said Forth, adding that the center will also provide diabetes prevention program.

And the center will help the young people in the program to get access to college as well.

“There is the myth, that kids who become disconnected wouldn’t go to college, and it’s simply not the case," Forth said.

For Peers, the center will present an opportunity for kids in the neighborhood to get the help that they need.

“A lot of these young adults never really were held accountable for their own success, so nobody ever really pushed them to succeed beyond what they already knew or what they saw in their neighborhoods," Peers said. "We believe in their greatness and we're gonna push them to get there, we're gonna push them to succeed.”

The new Y Roads Center is located at 161-04 Jamaica Ave. The center will open on April 8, but some programs have already started at the Jamaica YMCA at 89-25 Parsons Boulevard. Two more Y Roads centers are being planned for 2014.