"I was pretty much as close to homeless as someone could get," Lee Nadartowski says. Earlier this year, the 20-year-old had lost both his job and the place he'd been staying at in Taylor. Nadartowski's aunt took him in on a temporary basis, but without a job or savings, he says he was still "on the brink" of homelessness.
But Nadartowski got a fresh start in the job market thanks to the WorkZone
program at Ypsilanti's Ozone House
, which provides shelter, counseling, and other guidance services to at-risk Ypsilanti-area youth. WorkZone offers homeless 18- to 20-year-olds a 100-hour internship at an Ann Arbor or Ypsi business or organization, in addition to training on how to be a successful job hunter and a standout employee.
"I jumped at it," Nadartowski says. "I was not passing up this opportunity."
Colleen O'Brien, director of youth opportunity at Ozone House, says WorkZone was started in 2010 with the intention of lending a hand to young people who are ready to enter the job market but don't yet have the skills to excel there.
"With the downturn in the economy, there are just fewer jobs out there in the economy, especially for young people," O'Brien says. "Folks have to have a job if they're going to be able to fully support themselves, and be able to maintain a household. Our thought was to offer job training to young folks who don't generally have access to job training programs."
Before WorkZone interns go to work, they enter a two-week employment training boot camp. For two hours a day, program participants work with Ozone House staff and local businesspeople to hone their skills in the job hunt and on the job. Ozone House pays WorkZone interns a stipend for attending training, and for the internship itself.
For WorkZone alum Tiffanny Cho, 18, one of the most helpful elements of the training session was role-playing in mock job interview sessions with local businesspeople.
"They would tell us what they liked about the interview and what we could have done better," Cho says. "If they liked our posture, if we said ‘um' a lot, there was a lot of things they gave us for feedback."
Nadartowski says WorkZone's sessions on resume writing were especially valuable to him. "Really, in the beginning, my resume was almost not there," he says. "I wouldn't have hired me, honestly. There's a lot of things I was missing. Now I have a resume that I'm confident in."
Interns are also assigned a case manager for the experience. For Cho, who says she'd previously had one job that "didn't work out" while also coping with "problems at home," the additional guidance and support was valuable.
"I could have somebody to talk to about how things were going in my internship, how things were going in my personal life, how to create a balance," she says. "I definitely learned about myself, and I think that's one of the most important things when you're going into a job so you can talk about yourself and what your skills are."
"We reached out to folks in the community that we know support young people, or who already had conversations with us about ‘how can we collaborate to support young people in the community?'" O'Brien says. "Many of the partners we started with that first year are still our partners. And if they're not, it's because they had staffing changes."
One of those community partners is Amanda Uhle, director of 826Michigan
. Uhle says 826's focus on enriching young people's writing skills has long made for a "natural partnership" with Ozone House.
"We know and trust each other a lot, and have for years," Uhle says. "So when this opportunity came up to mentor one of their students, it just seemed like a beautiful thing to try."
Nadartowski was 826's first WorkZone intern, coming on board with the organization this past summer. Uhle says Nadartowski arrived with little experience relevant to 826's work, but he learned quickly and eventually worked up to leading a drop-in writing workshop. "He just grew so much throughout the summer," Uhle says.
Although he modestly describes himself as a "standard intern," Nadartowski radiates enthusiasm for his time at 826. "Probably my favorite part of the entire experience was working with the kids, just getting to share something that I love doing myself," he says.
O'Brien says that positive employer-intern experiences like Uhle and Nadartowski's have fueled remarkable growth for WorkZone in the short time it's been available. While it was offered only as a summer program to 15 interns in its first two years, the program expanded this year to four annual sessions. Twenty-three interns have already graduated this year's spring and summer sessions, 10 have just entered the fall session, and another cycle will begin later in the winter. O'Brien says WorkZone has become an "essential" program that's likely to see even more expansion.
"Young people are coming to us in need of stable employment," she says. "A lot of young folks go to fill out applications and they just haven't been taught the ropes, so they have multiple discouraging experiences and feel like they're just not employable. And that's not the case. They just don't have the skills that they need to be successful in the job market."
WorkZone certainly seems to have instilled a strong sense of confidence in recent graduates Cho and Nadartowski. Cho's internship at the Ypsilanti District Library has led to a regular gig teaching a dance class at the library, and she's also been interviewing for additional work. Nadartowski has been throwing himself into job hunting since his WorkZone experience wrapped up just a few weeks ago.
"I've been hunting like a madman," he says. "I'm not stingy about work, either. Work is work, and I'll apply anywhere I can get."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe