By Christy Lennon, senior HR Partner
(Christy Lennon recently penned this article for another outlet about “Project Dream,” which started in 1999 and continues to find success, providing work experience for a special group of students.)
When I was first approached about the “Project Dream” program in 1999, I was fascinated by the concept. The idea was to place high school students in the “Occupational Course of Study Programs” in either unpaid or paid positions on a college campus so they could obtain “real world” work experience while also receiving credit hours towards a high school diploma. I thought to myself, “How can I make this work?”
Beth Ritchie, community-based training coordinator, and Sandra Courtner, job coach for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools system, were not shy in asking me to do just that for a program still in its infancy. At that time I was manager of Human Resources for the Graylyn Conference Center. We were certainly on a tight financial budget, as many businesses were, but I wanted to learn more.
These high school students were on a vocational pathway to join the workforce after graduation. They had to complete 240 hours of non-paid, on-the-job work experience before they could participate in a paid position. If they were selected to work in a paid position, they would still complete several classes at their home school. They would work at our conference center about four hours per day. Graylyn is a lovely and historical property, and I knew it could be a wonderful training ground, a place where students could take pride in their work environment.
I wanted to understand more about the role of the job coach, and how much extra work might fall on the plate of the supervisors and managers at the worksite because they already have so much going on. Beth and Sandra assured me the coaches would be onsite every day to monitor all of the performance and behavioral issues and to assist the students with learning the job assignments as well. All of this meant that the Graylyn staffers would only be directing work, answering questions, and providing a learning environment. This was sounding better and better!
I was ready to meet with our general manager to pitch this idea to him. He was very open to the program, but a little hesitant at first, mostly due to budget constraints. Even at minimum wage, he was not sure that this was a sustainable venture, but, he was not going to walk away from the proposal and agreed to take on two students while three students were also placed on main campus as well. All five of these students were from Carter Vocational High School, and that was the start of a 16-year relationship.
Success and growth
Since the year 2000, both the Graylyn Conference Center and the WFU campus have continued with the Project Dream program and hired students into paid positions. Today, Graylyn places students into positions like housekeepers, laundry attendants, room service attendants, conference set-up attendants, and buffet attendants. Wake Forest places students into paid positions like custodians, day porters, fleet services attendants, groundskeepers, sanitation and surplus assistants.
Over the years, the program has certainly grown. With each academic year, the program team has asked for additional paid positions, and we have accommodated them. The name of the program has also changed from “Project Dream” to the “Satellite Program.” Students participate from almost every high school in Forsyth County, totaling almost twelve. Transportation is also arranged by the program managers, and school buses bring the students from the various schools to and from the job sites each and every day. This is a tremendous effort put forth by the school system and without its support, I am not sure the program would survive.
The department supervisors and managers have come to rely on the students as a part of their teams. Beyond that, the senior staff takes them in as family. The staff is responsible for training the students and become very invested in them, watching them grow and learn through the semester. “It’s a great program, and they do help out,” said Paul Sheff, turf coordinator. “It’s fun to work around them. They tell you some of their dreams and passions. It’s very different than what they are doing now. I wish Wake could hire more of them.”
Interview day is one of my favorite components of this program. In May, we bring all of the students who are eligible to participate in the program to campus for this event. Keep in mind, this program’s mission is to prepare students for the “real world” so the teachers and program directors advise them on the basics of what to wear, and some of them may even come prepared with resumes. The buses roll in and these students are all very well-dressed, but at first are timid and a little scared of what will happen next.
All of the potential supervisors and/or managers are present, and they each speak about the area they oversee. From Custodial Services, Fleet Services to Food & Beverage, they all make a pitch for why the students might like to work for them. They describe the working environment, whether it will be indoors/outdoors, and whether it’s working with people or more of a “behind the scenes” type of job. I love seeing the faces of the students immediately light up when a job looks of interest to them. We ask each student to say a few words about what type of non-paid assignments they have done, and what they would like to do after high school. Some have dreams of being artists, nurses, mechanics, teachers – the list goes on. Some say they want to go on to a community college or own their own business. They mirror the same dreams that many of our own college students have, and why shouldn’t they? Every high school student should have a dream to succeed.
A success story
Andrew Norton started in the program in the fall of 2008; he graduated in 2009. He was later hired in 2013 as a full-time employee and is still employed today as a groundskeeper in the Landscaping Department for Facilities & Campus Services.
Growing up on a farm, Andrew was already familiar with the basics of gardening and some landscaping. As he started out with the program, he was tasked with mowing grass, weeding and moving furniture for special projects as needed. He likes to stay busy and says “there is always some excitement somewhere,” adding that there is a lot that goes on with the job that people don’t see. When asked what the biggest challenge was as a student worker, he responded with, “Going out on your own, working alone.”
His current supervisor, Paul Sheff, says that Andrew always has an open mind and is willing to learn new things, like re-sodding the main Quad on the campus. Andrew also shared with me that he has made mistakes, but it’s okay, and he has asked for help. The department staff is always there for him and shows him how to do the job right. He genuinely likes the people he works with. “I wouldn’t trade it because it’s a good group of people that I work with,” he said with a smile.
Another example of true success is Chris Cox who came from Reagan High School in 2008. He was placed at Graylyn working as a set up attendant. He impressed the managers there enough to gain full time employment in the kitchen, where he became a dishwasher. He continues to exceed expectations. He has won the prestigious “Employee of the Quarter” award, and is still working hard today for the busy culinary team. There are others, too. Sam Seat, has worked for Graylyn’s Food & Beverage department since 2009, and Katisa Roseboro has worked for Wake Forest’s Custodial Services since 2004.
At the end of the school year, we host a graduation celebration ceremony. Every student from the first and second semester attends with his or her parents and family members as well as the managers and supervisors. It is a joyous occasion for sure! These students have truly grown up into young adults over the year. They are going to graduate high school and go out into the real world and get real jobs. Where will they go? Will they go out and become artists, nurses, mechanics, or teachers? On this day, anything seems possible.
Since 1908, “Pro Humanitate” has been Wake Forest’s guiding principle. Today, “For Humanity” inspires Wake Foresters to seek ways to use their knowledge and skills to invest in each other, their lives on campus and in the lives of others in local, regional and global communities. The Satellite Program offers a way for the university to give back to the community in many different ways. We are teaching students not only how to perform job skills that they can take with them into the working world, but we also are helping them learn soft skills such as how to interact professionally with others. This has been a “win-win” arrangement for the students and staff.
We feel like we’re all winners because of this program. Go Deacs!