Demetris Fowler got the call he had been waiting for after missing the cut during the interview process on two previous occassions. "My heart started beating real fast, I was really excited about the fact of knowing that I got the job," he said.
J'La Jones shared her success with her one year old son Paris. "It was really exciting that I'm going to be working here, helping out with the community and making it better for him," she said.
Now comes the hard part - addressing Rochester's cycle of violence, drug abuse and poverty. "This is a job where young people work really hard to dive into these issues in their own personal life and in the lives of the young people around them, and then figure out how to change them," said Teen Empowerment Program Director Doug Ackley.
In April, Ackley grieved the loss of former T.E. Youth Organizer Lawrence Richardson who was shot and killed. He said others are dying metaphorically. "They're being killed slowly by the lack of opportunity, by what's taking place in their household, by what they see on a regular basis, by what's happening in their schools," said Ackley.
The new Youth Organizers must earn their paycheck by finding ways to reach and inspire their beaten down peers. "Every single week you find somebody new getting shot, or killed, or hurt, anything, in the hospital, whatever, and so I feel like Teen Empowerment does have a sense of urgency to the fact that we have to do something and the time starts now," said Fowler.
Finding the right message and blend of events, from youth marches to open mic nights, will define their success. "You can bring people to fun events all the time and have no meaning to them, you can create meaningful opportunities that aren't fun and don't bring the right people, so their challenge is to create things that young people, who they're connected to, are going to come to," said Ackley. He added, it's not enough to get them there, they need to see the bigger picture as well. "They can change what's taking place in this city, if they come together and start to use their voices."
As for those who didn't get hired, including Arquan Smith, who was a Youth Organizer last year, Ackley is searching for ways to keep them connected and motivated. "One of the biggest tragedies is that we lose these young people as participants in solving the issues that are facing this city," he said.
Amid funding cuts, Ackley's creating a second tier of T.E. helpers to assist with projects, and partnering with the Boys & Girls Club and Pathways to Peace. "We have to really work hard to continue to provide ways for them to find hope, and I think that's a challenge for the whole community," he said.
Over 20 years with Teen Empowerment, the last ten in Rochester, Ackley remains driven by a guiding principle. "I do have a belief in my heart that people can change things that are taking place around them," he said.
Now the challenge rests on the shoulders of a new group of Youth Organizers, and the need has never been greater.
To learn more about Teen Empowerment, click here.