I never really felt I had it in me: Puente’s summer youth program changes lives

The end of summer is always a little sad at Puente. It’s when the youth interns who worked with Puente’s summer program – officially the Youth Leadership Development and Employment Program – are ready to go back to school. The Puente offices, filled with their energy and laughter, start to empty out.

“They leave here every summer with new skills, and Puente is enriched by them,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente. “They’re all rock stars as far as I’m concerned.”

The summer program, now in its eighth year, offers students as young as 14 the chance to earn a salary, take on serious work responsibilities and spend the summer making new friends. They worked as junior counselors at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch, teacher’s aides, cooks for the school district, at the Half Moon Bay Library, at Pie Ranch, South Coast Children’s Services, and in the office at Puente, helping organize programs, doing office work and providing child care.

Omar Macias tutors panther camp students.

Omar Macias tutors panther camp students.

But that’s not all that happens. Puente program coordinators say the young people change a lot during each summer, and over the course of several years, emerge as confident, self-directed young adults.

“You can never predict at the beginning of the summer who is really going to shine,” says Lobel.

Take Omar Macias, a self-avowed ‘troublemaker’ who earned a reputation for causing good-natured mischief and loves surfing and spending time with his friends. The 16-year-old just spent his second summer with Puente working as a teacher’s aide at Panther Camp, a summer enrichment program run by the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District. He says the experience taught him “how to help kids learn in different ways, how to calm them down and stuff like that. At the beginning I was hesitating around them. Later this summer I was more comfortable stepping in.”

Summer 2013 was what really changed his life, however. He spent three months cooking with chef Amy Glaze (creator of Puente’s Edible After-School Program), learning great, healthy recipes and selling the resulting dishes at Puente’s Pescadero Grown! Farmers’ Market.

Omar Macias at Puente's Youth Culinary Academy

Omar Macias at Puente’s Youth Culinary Academy

Macias talks about that experience in the kitchen the way a convert talks about finding religion.

“When I’m around food I feel like experimenting, making good things with food. There are so, so many things you can do with food – make it taste good, make it nutritious, organic, things like that,” he enthuses. “I never really felt I had it in me. I never really thought I would love cooking so much.”

Macias has been less enthusiastic about his schoolwork, and he had to make up school credits this summer. He read four books and spent two hours a day on Puente’s computers, studying. And he wasn’t the only Puente summer intern who worked extra hours for academic credit, according to Lobel.

“A big group of them were getting up at 7:30 in the morning to run programs for kids and then when they get here at 4:30, they’re studying at the end of a long work day,” she says.

That kind of commitment is a mark of maturity, says Rita Mancera, Program Director for Puente. Students as old as 21 still work in Puente’s summer programs, supervising their younger peers. Their starting salary is $12 an hour, whereas younger interns receive $9-$10 an hour. Earnings go up every year, which creates an incentive to stick with the work and do something productive each summer, says Mancera.

Comments are closed.