Hard work, teamwork and honesty pay

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You can’t be part of the program and not be changed – either as a participant or a supervisor.

The teen looked scared.

He walked up to the director of UNO’s SummerWorks program and confessed.

I really didn’t mean to do it.

He’d been trying to make some rap music, he told her, and was tapping on a window at Elmwood Park’s old pavilion. Tapping out the beat.

He thought he was doing it gently, but the glass cracked.

The teen was one of the young participants last year in SummerWorks, an employment academy for Omaha-area kids who are 15 to 18 years old. Like all of the kids in the program, this job was his first. Like all of the kids, he was trying to learn how to be a good employee and to be part of a team and to be responsible.

He and the others were making $7.25 an hour, pulling weeds, planting trees, painting and fixing things in parks and other public places …

Making the city more beautiful.

He figured the money to replace the window would come out of his paycheck, but he was OK with that.

He looked surprised by what “Miss Kathe,” the SummerWorks director, told him.

“I listened to him and I said, ‘You know, what was really important is that you were honest, and you learned that honesty really is an important trait in the workplace,'” recalls Kathe Oleson Lyons, Ph.D.

“And we used his story as a wonderful model for the rest of the group.”

The kids work Monday through Thursday. They get free breakfast, lunch, snacks and transportation. They get matching green T-shirts.

Each Friday they spend the day learning about the community. This summer, field trips have included the Old Market, Joslyn Art Museum and the county courthouse.

You can’t be part of the program, Oleson Lyons says, and not be changed – either as a participant or a supervisor.

She’s seen that change on the faces of the young participants. They begin the summer kind of naïve and nervous. They grow confident.

“You can see it in their walk and you can see it in their articulation of who they are, what they’re about in their work that they’re doing.”

One of this summer’s participants, Syranda Poole, says SummerWorks changed her. She says she came into the program “on the immature side.”

“Thank you guys so much for letting all these kids get the opportunity, because a lot of people come from very low-income families, and the neighborhood that we’re in now – it’s keeping a lot of people out of trouble. A lot of lives are actually being saved. I had three friends die in the last two years, so thank you guys so much …

“It’s a miracle that you guys are doing this.”

SummerWorks changed Jamar Smith:

“Before, I wasn’t really big on working with people. But then I met my team leader, Mr. Morgan, and I learned that you have to do that to make it through a lot of things – not just this program, but in life, you have to get to know people.”

SummerWorks made the city more beautiful. And people in the community have noticed.

Earlier this summer, Oleson Lyons received a message on her phone:

“My name is Patrick Williams, I am calling concerning the summer program and the young people picking up litter in the park. As a retired public safety officer and alumni presently working on my master’s, and as a citizen, I appreciate and thank you wholeheartedly. For years I volunteered my own time picking up litter in parks in parts of town, and it is refreshing to see the clean parks. I have seen a number of young people today and a few weeks ago. I decided to go to Fontenelle, and saw some of them there too … the park is beautiful! The organization and structure of it all, too, is excellent.

I am going to continue to let other people know that this is an excellent program. Feel free to use this recording as an affirmation, this is a worthwhile endeavor. This program is beautiful, thank you so much. Have a good day and thank you for this program.”

SummerWorks is just completing its second year. It’s made possible by the generosity of a group of local donors and is organized through UNO’s Student-Community Leadership and Service Department.

“A lot of people ask why we are doing this,” says Oleson Lyons, who’s head of that department. “UNO is a metropolitan university – the only one in the state of Nebraska. And part of our mission is about community stewardship and community engagement.

“Sponsoring the program was a natural fit for us – to serve the needs of our community, to serve our youth, to serve our families and our neighborhoods, as well as to build a model program that will hopefully in a few years we can share with other cities across the nation.”

Community Engagement is one of the top campaign priorities for UNO. If you would like to help its Student-Community Leadership and Service Department – and its programs like SummerWorks – please consider giving online or contact the foundation’s Renee Reding at 800-432-3216.

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