The theme of the YouthWorks 2011 Youth at Work event was opportunity. Since 1994, YouthWorks has provided more than 22,000 youth with an opportunity to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty and violence many low-income minorities live in.

“It really does become a launching pad because it expands their network and cultivates their interests. We’ve seen through many of these experiences, our young people may get a job later on,” said Dara Ware Allen, YouthWorks executive director. “History is so compelling about how opportunity can make a difference and how our decisions can lead to that. Our young people see how the decisions they make everyday can affect them.”

WES MOORE (Photo by Rossano Stewart)

YouthWorks is a non-profit organization that provides high school students with career building experiences such as work readiness training, internships, and employment and career exploration. The event held at the Herberman Conference Center on Dec. 15, featured testimonials from youth involved in the program and the employers who provide them with employment and career opportunities.

“YouthWorks has helped open my eyes to what’s out there and how YouthWorks believed I could turn some negatives in my life into positive changes,” said Trenton Simmons in his testimonial. “I love YouthWorks.”

“We’ve seen from the inside the good work YouthWorks does,” said Joseph Massaro of Massaro Corp. “The kids they’ve introduced us to have been prepared. They make them ready to go into the workforce.”

Serving as the evening’s keynote speaker was New York Times bestselling author Wes Moore, a man whose own decisions and opportunities set his life on a course much different then other low-income minority youth. In fact, in his book, “The Other Wes Moore,” the author examines the life of another young man with the same name who grew up in the same neighborhood and ultimately went to jail for murder.

“Had it not been for people who supported me, my life would’ve been very different. Eventually, I began to understand the only way I was going to make it, was if my friends were there to push me,” Moore said of his time spent in military school. “There I found something that I didn’t find anywhere else. I found people who were willing to advocate for me.”

Attending military school was the opportunity that changed Moore’s life, eventually catapulting him to become a captain in the U.S. Army, Rhodes Scholar, White House fellow and an international investment professional. In his address, he advocated for the work of organizations like YouthWorks and encouraged the youth to take full advantage of the opportunities they have received.

“There are people all over this country and all over Pittsburgh who are working everyday to make opportunities real. The coolest thing is seeing people take this call to action seriously. You don’t need a title; you don’t need to run for office. Just find something you’re passionate about and do it,” Moore said. “The reason I’m so excited about the work you’re doing everyday is because our society cannot get by on charity.”

The event served as an opportunity to recognize outstanding youth in the YouthWorks program. It also gave them an opportunity to network with business and community leaders from across the Pittsburgh region.

“There are very few places where you can go to celebrate young people and particularly young people of color,” said Candi Castleberry Singleton, chief inclusion and diversity officer for UPMC. “It is significant that people are here to celebrate you and that you are here to be celebrated because there are so many other things you could be doing.”

YouthWorks with at-risk youth aged 14-25, matching them with internships at local businesses. They have partnered with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, and CareerLink.

“The professional exposure I received laid the foundation for how to interact with professionals at a young age,” said Christopher Spradley, a program alumnus. “I can capture YouthWorks with the word opportunity. YouthWorks was the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I want to also question and challenge the youth here. What are you going to do with this opportunity?”

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