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Project Oz Program Helps Youths Find A Job—And A Second Chance

Tre Whitelow and Jay Shannon
Ryan Denham
Project Oz Community Youth Employment Program Director Jay Shannon, left, with client Tre Whitelow from Bloomington.

Young adulthood is often carved up into milestones—your first job, car, house, or child.

For Tre Whitelow of Bloomington, it was a much smaller achievement that became a turning point of sorts. He recently got his first wallet, at age 21.

“I never really had a wallet, because I never had to budget money,” he said. “I never had to sit down and make a resume. There’s a lot of things I never done until Project Oz brought me in.”

Whitelow is a Project Oz client. He’s part of a new program that connects low-income and at-risk youth to successful, long-term employment. Funded by a state grant, the Community Youth Employment Program supports clients like Whitelow before and after they get a job, building up the soft skills necessary to succeed at work and home, like conflict resolution and financial literacy.

Whitelow said it’s been a big help already. He’s worked a lot of low-wage, short-term jobs, but it’s difficult to find something long-term that pays a decent wage, he said.

“It’s very hard,” Whitelow said. “It’s hard for me, being black. And then, let’s say you get in trouble. A lot of people don’t like giving second chances. So this is a good opportunity to show that I’m really a good U.S. citizen. I’m not bad. I’m just here to work. I’m here to serve my community.”

A good opportunity is just around the corner. Whitelow is up for a job at Bridgestone’s off-road tire plant in Normal. Bridgestone is one of 24 employment partners in the Project Oz program from several industries, including retail, fast food, health care, and landscaping.

“It's made me mature,” Whitelow said of Project Oz’s job coaching. “It opened my eyes up to things I never seen before. It made me have a vision of what could be.”

Seeing the future is hard when you’re bouncing from job to job, making minimum wage. Research shows today’s average 16-year-old will work 29 jobs in their lifetime, said Jay Shannon, director of Project Oz’s youth employment program.

“But having a job that can make a living wage is a little bit different,” Shannon said. “That opportunity to find a sustainable job is sometimes where the struggle lies.”

The current Illinois minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. But it costs at least $750 a month to find a decent studio apartment in Bloomington-Normal, Whitelow said. That math can be crushing.

“That’s really probably why a lot of young African-Americans do go to the streets, turn to other things. It’s the income. We just can’t help it, 'cause it’s what we know, it’s what we see in our life,” he said.

Shannon has also managed Project Oz’s school outreach program, spending the past 13 years housed at Bloomington High School. He saw the same problem, year after year.

“Everything is so structured in high school. When they want you to move, they ring a bell,” Shannon said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “What happens is after those four years and you graduate, so often young adults that may not necessarily be going away to college, they haven’t been prepared or even taught how to go into that next phase of their life.”

“It’s like, then what?” Whitelow said.

That’s where the Project Oz Community Youth Employment Program comes in. It launched in November 2018 with funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services grant. Employers who hire clients from the program can get part of that new hire’s wages subsidized for the first three months. And clients get nine months of support after starting the job.

Shannon praised Bridgestone and encouraged other employers to join the program too.

“(Bridgestone) offers a really good program for skilled laborers, and the reality is they need help with finding strong candidates. And we have strong candidates. So it was a marriage made in heaven. It was a perfect fit for both us,” Shannon said.

In a statement, Bridgestone spokesperson Anthony Ingham said the company was proud to work with Project Oz to “hire young professionals to work in different areas of our plant.”

“These professionals also count on the help from Project Oz to coach and mentor them, and help them to be successful at Bridgestone,” Ingham said. “Bridgestone Bloomington is committed to working closely with the communities where we operate to provide job and growth opportunities.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.