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Teens in Public Service

June 2020: Employing teens to serve our community, leveraging their guidance to pivot in a pandemic

Teens are affected pretty uniquely among the school-age set. They are more negatively impacted by social isolated and many depend on summer jobs, which are now in question. So, what do you do if your organization's mission is to get teens jobs and connect them to the larger community, when direct service is no longer an option? Teens in Public Service was preparing to launch their largest cohort ever when COVID hit. They decided to engage the students in helping to re-design their programming, to ensure students and non-profits could still participate.

What is the vision of Teens in Public Service?

We provide paid internships to teenagers, to work at non-profits over the summer. Really what that means is we offer teens a practical work experience, an understanding of ethical leadership, and a place to put those values into action. And then in return, nonprofits gain additional staff during the summer months at no cost to their organizations. Our four main goals are to:

· provide a fulfilling work experience

· cultivate a positive work ethic

· create caring, passionate leaders of tomorrow,

· and promote a spirit of giving that lasts a lifetime and benefits the community

That is no small task! What kind of students are drawn to this work?

The teenagers are aged 15 to 19. They come from all over Seattle area, as far north as Everett and as far south as Tacoma. We have been around for almost 25 years. We’ve worked with over 200 nonprofits during that time and we've had over 1100 teens complete the program. Last year we had over 33 high schools represented.

The main thing we’re looking from an intern is their interest in public service. They don't have to be at the top of their class - we don't actually look at GPA - but, we do look at what else they’ve done in their community. We're looking for self-starters, who can take the initiative and work independently.

This is obviously different than the typical summer job for a high schooler. How does it all come together?

We originally were set to have our biggest internship class ever: between 70 and 75 internships this summer. Previously our class size was -.50 to 60. We’ve had a lot of growth.

Each year, we receive over 300 applications. And we interview about 190 students for 60 to 70 spots. It's a really competitive program. This year we had 70 amazing internships lined up, with organizations working in the arts, environment, social justice, human services, food banks, museums. It's pretty much the whole spectrum.

We vet all of those nonprofits and the internships. The students complete 160 hours of paid work over the summer. And in addition to their internship, which typically last six to eight weeks, we also have four mandatory events: an intern orientation, leadership training, day of service; and a celebration of service.

What do you think was driving the growth over the past couple of years? Going from 40 to 60 to 75 - that's a pretty big jump.

We are reliant on the TIPS alumni to act as ambassadors at their high schools. They go back and tell their classmates about this.

And the thing is, there just aren’t that many opportunities for teenagers to work and receive a paycheck for working at a nonprofit organization. Teenagers really want to give back to their community. And because this is one of only a few programs available, there's really high demand.

Where were you at in your programming when COVID hit and how has that affected this year’s class of interns?

We were preparing to select the interns for this year. And we had to completely rethink our program because most of the internships are in the field. And that's really where the interns get the benefit of working with a non-profit and with their clients – in direct service. They might be working at a summer camp or tutoring kids or putting bags of food together at the food bank. When COVID hit, we had to go back to the drawing board and ask: Can we actually even provide these internships?

But, TIPS has a youth advisory committee that's made up of TIPS alumni. So, we asked them: can we host these internships remotely? Will the students even like working on their computer 8 hours a day? Can we really do this when non-profits all around us are cancelling their youth programming?

And they all said: ‘Please, please continue offering this program. So much has already been canceled. So many of the other opportunities for teens are already gone. We no longer get to see our friends. We don't have school. And teens like us want to give back to our community. Please find a way to do it.’

That’s such a great reminder of the energy that teenagers have and the connections they are so actively looking for. In what ways have you been able to respond?

We still need to put safety first. We reached out to all of our partners and asked whether they were still interested in having a TIPS intern this year. And, we gave them the option to either defer until next year or continue to host an intern this year, but with adjustments. We've managed to secure over 24 placements at 21 non-profits.

All of the students who were offered an internship accepted right away!

Beyond moving the internships to the computer, in what other ways will the program feel different this year?

All of our interns will have a mentor who is a TIPS alumni, who is now in college or older. And, they’ll work together in mentorship circles or pods. They will meet regularly to help guide them.

We also have a nonprofit training so that we can set up our interns for success. Previously we would have hosted a more general orientation. But, this year we're focusing primarily on communication and tech: how are you going to communicate with the students over the summer? What type of projects are you going to provide to them? How often are you going to check in with them? How are you going to make sure they're safe, and will they have access to the resources they need?

Your team is just three people. Where have you been getting support to re-develop your plans and drive all of these changes forward?

We have a really involved Board of Directors, with members that work in all different sectors. They've been advising us on how we can ensure a safe working environment.

We've also been working with other non-profits, sharing information on best practices.

And we’re working with our youth advisory committee and our alumni, because they really know best what teenagers these days are like, what they're going through, and what they have access to. All of these teenagers know their way around tech more than we do - they can do this in their sleep.

But a lot of it is just us getting creative.

Beyond the internship, what are you hearing from the teenagers about how they are affected by COVID?

It’s hard. The youth that we work with are usually really enthusiastic and excited. But, you can see their energy dropping. I don’t think they quite understood how hard it is to be alone. One of the teenagers was telling me how she'll call her friend on Facetime, just so they can do their homework together. That’s really telling about how much teenagers miss, and really need that social interaction.

Throughout all of this disruption and change, has there been anything that has surprised you? Is there anything you’ll carry forward?

One thing is in how we’ve shifted our selection committee. We typically break up student interviews into volunteer interviewer teams - it would be impossible for our staff to interview 190 students. Those interviews have always been held in-person. But, this year we held them all on video conference and many of our volunteers said they liked that approach better: it saved them time and, logistically, it was easier. We don’t want to lose the in-person option entirely, but we’re now seeing the on-line tools as a way to scale and grow.

What do you wish that the government understood about what’s happening to your organization?

Working for a small nonprofit means that we are doing everything ourselves. As the Executive Director, I’m doing HR, finance, operations, on and on. If we didn't have the board, it would have been really hard to navigate all of this change. We wouldn’t have figured out the PPP loans. Especially at the beginning, it seemed wildly unfair - it seemed structured for those who had a department to work on applying and managing the loans.

Also, fundraising has just gotten so much more difficult. That’s another issue we now need to figure out how to navigate anew.

I know we aren't necessarily working on the front lines, but we are providing a valuable service to teenagers and to our nonprofit partners. And we are pivoting and we are adjusting and adapting to the new environment - we're still able to provide our services. I think that is a testament to the fact we can adapt and change as humans. But, it means we still need everyone’s support to keep this work going.

Any last thoughts?

Ultimately, I want to continue fostering this spirit of service with teenagers. So many of our alumni continue to volunteer at their placements when they're finished and sometimes the nonprofits even hire their students, afterwards. The students we hire are exceptional. They're really talented. I often hear: I had no idea that a teenager was able to accomplish these amazing projects.

Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help:

  • Support Teens in Public Service, so that they can continue to get more teens in direct service.

  • If your company/non-profit traditionally hosts interns, follow TIPS lead in adjusting the design of the internship to set the students up for success!

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