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Second chances with a cup of coffee

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By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post

Some people follow what many consider the natural progression of life: high school, graduate, college, graduate, career, retire, die.

But in all actuality, the people who follow that progression have become the minority. With technical schools, specialized training and abundant career changes in life, most people do not follow that perceived progression, and for others, that blueprint isn’t best for them.

Some don’t follow that path because of uncertainty, while others are knocked off that pathway prematurely by hardship, unfortunate events or poor decisions.

Wilson County Schools’ YouthLinks is in the business of righting the paths of young adults that have been knocked off their paths, either by uncontrollable events or decisions made by youth without better knowledge.

By offering support by way of education if needed, skills and job training, career planning and even financial assistance, YouthLinks tries to give troubled youth a new start to their lives to get them back on track.

One such program is the work experience provided by local business owners, such as Java Joe’s, New Leash on Life (Wilson County Humane Association), and even Lebanon attorney Keith Williams, while YouthLinks foots the paycheck.

“The work experience program we offer is a win-win-win for everyone involved,” said Melanie Powell of YouthLinks. Powell works with young adults in the program helping them get the assistance they need to begin a successful life from here on out, including finding them jobs.

“If a business will offer work to one of our youth, they get an employee for free because YouthLinks pays their paychecks,” Powell said. “They get an employee for free, we get to give an opportunity to help one of our individuals, and the young adult gets valuable work experience they can put on a resume to a future full-time employer. It’s a win-win-win.”

Michael and Amanda Carpenter, owners of Java Joe’s in the DT McCall shopping center in Lebanon, took a chance and agreed to “hire” a young adult on a trial basis for a few weeks while talking over coffee with Powell one morning. YouthLinks signed the paycheck and the Carpenters got an employee to help them open the coffee shop several days a week.

“We really liked the mission of YouthLinks,” Michael said. “It reminds me of my youth. And it offers opportunity rather than handouts, putting the responsibility on the individual.”

After moving from Tennessee at a young age and before becoming a pastor, Michael said he spent several years in California living a life full of drugs and excess. It was his background that initially interested him in the program.

D.J. began working at Java Joe’s with the Carpenters and found more than a job, he found mentors. The Carpenters started Matthew’s Table Church, which meets Sunday evenings at the coffee shop.

“When it all started I had nothing,” D.J. said. At 17 years old, he was a high school dropout, homeless, had no income and no family that would help support him. He was forced to quit school by his father and get a job. He had worked at nearly a dozen different jobs but nothing was secure.

“Now I have a job, housing, and I’m in the GED program,” D.J. said. The Carpenters have since hired D.J. as an employee on their own.

“It was obvious very early that D.J. was motivated, that’s why he has progressed quickly,” Powell said.

But the Carpenters have offered D.J. something more than a paycheck and housing, which they helped set up for him. They offered him positive examples, mentorship and even a firm hand establishing the discipline he never learned.

“(Michael) makes me do write-offs if I slip up and cuss,” D.J. laughed. “I was doing them almost every day when I first started here. I don’t think I’ve done any in a few weeks.”

“D.J. is very bright and capable,” Powell said. He was just the victim of uncontrollable experiences.

Currently there are 45 young adults between the ages of 17 and 22 in the program, she added. Only the most determined and motivated will be placed in a business for experience. Powell gives them several goals to complete before they prove their commitment to the program.

Eligible youths must fit at least one requirement as a documented barrier: income hardships, former foster child, homeless, or having an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, implemented in school. D.J. fit not just one of those requirements, he fit them all.

“It’s an intensive program,” Michael added. “High accountability, Bible study, work skills and character formation.” Individuals are drug screened and background checked before being allowed into the work experience program.

“We talked with D.J. and told him your work is a reflection of your character,” Amanda said.

“I’ve become an all-around better person,” D.J. said, “to myself and to others.”

When he was asked what he has learned about the experience at the coffee shop, D.J. quickly noted the he found out that he’s “definitely not a morning person.” He comes into work every day before 6 a.m. and will often work until after noon.

Java Joe’s has partnered with YouthLinks in other ways, hosting quarterly meetings and providing food and drinks during the events, and even to struggling individuals who just walk in the door asking for help.

“It’s more than just a job,” Amanda said. “We look at it as a calling.”

For more information about how to volunteer to become a business partner, call YouthLinks at 453-3833. For more information about Java Joe’s or Matthew’s Table Church, visit www.diningwithsinners.org.

Java Joe’s will also be holding a fund raiser for local flood victims on Saturday, May 8 at 5 p.m. Music, entertainment and refreshments will be available. And 10 percent of all sales until the end of May will go directly to local flood relief efforts.

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at zowensby@wilsonpost.com.

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