Teen shoulders adult responsibilities

While maintaining a 3.7 GPA, Yessica Rodriguez works two jobs to help family make ends meet

ebazar@usc.eduSeptember 16, 2010 

Porcelain dolls and stuffed animals vie for space on two shelves above Yessica Rodriguez’s bed, homage to a childhood that seems far away.

“I don’t feel like a kid. I feel like an adult,” she said.

Rodriguez, 16, holds two jobs, earning money to buy her own clothes and school supplies and help with the family’s bills.

A soccer player, horror film aficionado and 11th-grader at Atascadero High School, Rodriguez is among a growing number of teens taking jobs to help their families get through the recession.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them,” she said. “I don’t like to see my parents worry. My mom gets sad sometimes.”

“Kids … want to do anything they can to help,” said Sara Cress, mental health director for the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, which operates 17 clinics in San Luis Obispo County. “They’re not asking for new shoes.”

The Rodriguez family bought its three-bedroom, two-bathroom Atascadero home in 2008. At that time, Yessica’s dad, Francisco Rodriguez, 53, held three jobs. But two of them disappeared when Denny’s and the Carlton hotel restaurant in Atascadero closed.

He still works at Mid-State Solid Waste & Recycling, but “it’s not enough,” Yessica said.

Her mother, Hilda Rojas, 47, cleans houses, a profession that is prey to the whims of the economy.

“Some of the families that used to have their houses cleaned don’t have the money anymore and prefer to clean themselves,” Rojas said.

Both are looking for more work, so far with little luck. They fret about their $2,400 house payment, which they have trouble making even with help from Yessica’s 25-year-old sister, who lives in the home with her husband and two children.

“We’re worried. Sometimes I can’t sleep,” Rojas said. “Sometimes I think about what we have to pay. We don’t want to lose the house.”

Yessica’s father, a man of few words, has internalized his worry. He went to the doctor recently, complaining that he didn’t feel well, Rojas said. The diagnosis: stress.

Since 2008, Yessica has contributed $145 of her earnings each month to pay for her cell phone, her mom’s cell phone, Internet access and satellite TV for the family. Her main job is with Teens at Work, a program that provides paying jobs to Atascadero teenagers. It is run by the nonprofit The LINK.

The job, which brings in $100 to $150 every two weeks, pays minimum wage. Among Yessica’s duties: She gathers recyclables from local businesses, makes and sells jewelry and designs and sells greeting cards. She works 12 hours per week in the summer and six to eight during the school year.

Her second job is less structured: She makes necklaces, bracelets and earrings at home in her spare time and sells them to friends for extra money.

Yessica bought a desktop computer and other school supplies with her earnings. She buys her own clothes but has been cutting back. “I prefer to keep the clothes I have so I can help my parents more,” she said.

Sometimes, she brings food home for her family from the Teens at Work food pantry.

On a recent afternoon, she sat hunched over a tray of glass and wooden beads, listening to Mexican love ballads on her cell phone while making a bracelet. She slipped gold and brown beads onto the string with methodical precision and finished in 10 minutes.

The work provides an escape, she said. “It keeps me busy. It keeps bad thoughts away,” she said. “Sometimes, when I’m worried or sad, I focus on work. It makes me forget about stuff that causes stress.”

Her mom describes her daughter as strong but realizes Yessica puts pressure on herself. “I want her to focus on school and think about something else,” Rojas said. “Sometimes she tells me she wants to work more. I say no because she’ll have to leave school.”

“Sometimes we don’t tell Yessica about our problems because we know it will make her worry,” she added.

Yessica maintains a 3.7 GPA, and does homework during the school day so she can work after school. She hopes to go to college and become a pediatric nurse or kindergarten teacher.

“She doesn’t think like a little kid,” Rojas said. “She’s more responsible.”

For fun, Yessica recently joined a Paso Robles soccer league and wants to find time to try out for the school team this year. “I have wanted to join other sports at school, but I couldn’t because I have to work,” she said.

She cooks with her mom and on the weekends loves to make a traditional Mexican breakfast of chilaquiles.

Yessica also gives her mom moral support. “The way Yessica is motivates me,” Rojas said. “She makes me want to keep going because she doesn’t give up.”

Yessica, too, is proud of her contributions. “I like to help them so they know I care about them. I don’t want them to pay me with something. I want them to pay me back with love,” she said.

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