Frontline Fellowships help youth learn and give back during pandemic

Frontline Fellows, Lissy Lagos (far right) and Lamon Jones (second from right) work with the small nonprofit Bike Durham by handing out masks to the public and informing on the correct way to wear them. Frontline businesses chosen were picked because of the missions they perform in the community during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of John Tallmadge

By Khadijah McFadden

Teen Editor-in-Chief

Covid-19 has changed many people’s lives, some for the better and others for worse. One of those changes include their work predicaments. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 19 million people lost their jobs or stopped working for a period of time due to Covid.

The BLS found that the North Carolina unemployment rate was 7.3 percent at the end of September, the most recent data collected.

            Durham Children’s Initiative, formerly known as East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI), and Partners for Youth Opportunity (PYO) found a way to help young adults in the program to continue working while helping to keep the community going during a difficult summer through a program called Frontline Fellowships.

            DCI found through a series of surveys early in the spring, when Covid was just beginning to make rounds, that 42 percent of young people in its programming lost jobs or income in the first three months of the crisis. In other words, Covid made things significantly harder on Durham’s young adults.

Through these “fellowships,” DCI put 13 college-aged students to work assisting community businesses and organizations with food making and distribution, small business support, helping children and more. Students worked at least 20 hours for 12 weeks while making $15 an hour doing their work. 

Students were placed based on skills that they already owned and would be a good fit. The hope was that youth would maintain building their remote work skill sets and ethics while continuing to support themselves and save for the future.

The funding for the fellowships came from a grant from Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs.

Natasha Graham, a budding graphic artist and a former Durham VOICE teen editor-in-chief, is one of the students who participated in the program, and spent her summer working with DCI Communications.

“This opportunity taught me how to navigate through a professional setting like DCI remotely and also how to present myself in a large company like this and have everyone still know who I am,” said Graham, a recent graduate of Wells College in upstate New Yorkl.

Graham went on to say that she learned how to work collaboratively with coworkers hundreds of miles away as a professional working remotely in New York. Although she wasn’t used to working this way, she and her colleagues worked together to get everything done correctly and timely.

            Another student from DCI who participated in the summer program is Yusuf Shah, another Durham VOICE former staff writer-photographer.

He worked with Meals on Wheels Durham, which is an organization that delivers hot meals to senior citizens.

Shah, a recent graduate of UNC-Pembroke, said the experience he had with Meals on Wheels was memorable and that it gave him “a better sense of communication and self-improvement.”

“It gave [people] the opportunity of assistance to those who rely on meal services when they need it the most,” he said.

Just like Graham, Shah also had to perform his work socially distanced/remotely.

            DCI identified and sent out students, like Graham and Shah who can be depended on —. they didn’t send just anyone. The students chosen went through a whole process and several hours of “netiquette,” or internet etiquette, training. Before they began working for their organizations all the students had to complete a virtual training put on by DCI and community experts. The training included:

  • Understanding virtual professionalism
  • Practical virtual working skills like designating a place in the home for nothing but work
  • Database basics like understanding how to manage and read data
  • Understanding organizational social impact and how to run a social media campaign

DCI has always pushed students to be prepared for the future and always do their best to make sure their students can be set. With this job all of their students were required to save at least 10 percent of their earnings but many students chose to save more than 50 percent of their stipends and in total saved more than $21,000 over the summer.

There is a benefit to students having saved money — DCI is matching what they earn in their savings dollar for dollar which they will have access to as they continue building assets for their future.

Of the Frontline Fellows, two wound up being hired permanently at Sour Bakery and Helius N.C.

While Covid doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, programs like the Frontline Fellows and those like it are giving Durham youth a chance to forge their own successful career paths.

Shah said the experience was one of a kind and that he’d never forget it.

“It is great to feel like there is purpose for your work” he said.