BROKEN HEARTHS: A network of support

County families overwhelmed by financial troubles can turn to a collection of local programs — both private and public — to help get themselves back on sound footing

jlynem@thetribunenews.com and ebazar@usc.eduSeptember 18, 2010 

Jobs lost. Mortgages in default. Dreams deferred.

Faced with overwhelming obstacles during the worst economic crisis in decades, many San Luis Obispo County families are stressed to the breaking point.

But they don’t have to tackle these challenges alone.

A host of local ventures are stepping up to aid county residents, providing psychological, financial and educational assistance in an attempt to stop the pain and instill hope.

Some help teens get savvy about money management; others work with parents to shape job-seeking strategies or assist them with family issues in troubled times.

Here’s a look at five programs — some private nonprofits, others run by county government — that provide a network of support to help parents and teens cope with problems and develop their own solutions.

Entrepreneurial program helps teens help their families

Jeremy Ritchie donned a white chef’s frock in Atascadero High School’s teaching kitchen one recent afternoon and whipped up two kinds of pizza and lots of sinful sweets.

The pizzas were for the other teens working with him.

The brownies and oatmeal raisin cookies were for hungry local residents willing to plunk down money for a sweet treat and a good cause.

That cause is Teens at Work, a program that allows Jeremy, 16, and other teens to transform their budding entrepreneurialism into paying jobs.

The program not only helps Atascadero teens make money and get work experience — it also helps their families. As more area residents struggle to find work or avoid foreclosure, Teens at Work students pay for their own needs and in some cases, those of their parents and siblings.

“I don’t have to ask my parents for money or anything,” said Jeremy, a 10th-grader whose family recently left Atascadero for a more affordable apartment in Templeton.

Jeremy has used his earnings of up to $110 every two weeks to help pay for rent and groceries and to buy school supplies for himself and gifts for his little sister, including a curling iron for her birthday in July.

“It makes me feel good” to contribute to the family bills, he said. “My parents are proud of me. My dad always says he raised me right.”

The teens’ primary jobs include making necklaces and selling them at local businesses and festivals; collecting recyclables from area businesses and then redeeming them for money; baking and selling sweets; and designing and selling greeting cards.

“We give them their first employment experience and a lot of job skills, like how to make change, how to introduce themselves, how to provide good customer service,” program director Betian Webb said.

The program, which began in 2007, is run by The LINK, a nonprofit community resource center that offers services throughout the county.

The teens earn minimum wage, $8 per hour, and work an average of six hours per week.

They brought in $2,000 from their first half-year of sales and recycling in 2007. Last year, they earned $27,000, Webb said.

The aim is to make the program self-sufficient. Right now, the students earn about one-third of the budget, with the rest coming from grants, she said.

“These guys are entrepreneurs, I tell you,” said Susan Jones, assistant to the CEO of Midland Pacific Homes, a local homebuilder.

For about six months, Teens at Work has been collecting recyclables from her office every Wednesday.

“A lot of businesses I deal with in the adult world don’t follow through. These guys always follow through. I have never been disappointed,” Jones said.

Among the students who contribute to the family finances is Yessica Rodriguez, 16. Each month, the 11th-grader dedicates about $145 of her earnings to cell phone and other family bills.

Her parents have both experienced job loss and reduced hours.

“My parents don’t have to worry about me. I can help them by buying my own stuff,” said Yessica, who has purchased clothes, a desktop computer and other items with her paycheck.

Jeremy’s mom is trying to find work. He gave most of one recent check to her so she could pay off a late phone bill.

“This program keeps kids out of trouble,” said Jeremy, who hopes to study electrical engineering at Cal Poly and wants to finance his college education by becoming a restaurant cook.

Like the youths who participate, Teens at Work is struggling with the economy.

A quarter of the businesses participating in the recycling program have folded in the past year, Webb said.

Grant funding has also slowed. Last year, the program’s budget was $97,000. This year, it is $20,000 less.

With less money coming in, fewer teens have been able to join. Over the summer, there were 22 teens on staff, fewer than the 47 last summer.

“The need is so great for basic food and housing and health costs that it’s harder to raise money for teen job skills,” Webb said.

The LINK and teens at work

The LINK operates family resource centers in Atascadero and San Miguel and provides services throughout the county: 466-5404, http://linkslo.org

Teens at Work: 466-1732

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