By mtjulietintern

Photo courtesy of Lisa Dickson
A past participant takes part in Wilson County Schools’ YouthLinks program, which helps young adults 18-24 years old find career opportunities.

A lesser-known program in Wilson County Schools exists specifically to assist young adults to find a career path.

The program, YouthLinks, has been a part of the school system for 18 years and has reached thousands of students in that time. The program is the result of a partnership between the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development and Wilson County Schools. It’s funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

It began as a during-school program that only operated in the summer. YouthLinks was created when the decision was made it should be a year-round program.

It also originally served students 14-21 years old, and now it reaches students 18-24 years old.

“About two years ago, they decided that they felt like our funds would be better used once they graduated high school,” said program director Lisa Dickson. “So, what they did was took our funds and kind of moved them, so when a young person graduates from high school, we can pick them up and carry them forward.”

What the program offers to young adults is to get them put on some kind of career path, whether that means attending a college or trade school or simply getting work experience in a field in which they’re interested.

“Everyone who enrolls in our program, they want them to leave with something better,” said Dickson. “If you come to us, we want you to get some kind of certification or if you want to get an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.”

Dickson said a big part of the program is to help the young people achieve meaningful, career-related employment that leads to economic self-sufficiency.

“They want it to be something that they can grow with career-wise,” said Dickson. “You can go out here and you can go to a fast-food place, but is that something you can do for the rest of your life, or is that something that you want to do for the rest of your life? So we try to get them into things that are driven by the business industry.”

To qualify for the program, a young adult has to meet certain guidelines.

“Basically, they have to have some sort of barrier,” said Dickson. “Now that barrier could be they don’t have transportation, they have asthma, they are in foster care. Maybe they have a hearing difficulty. You have to have a barrier. If they have taken the ACT multiple times but can’t advance or meet the minimum requirements of a university, we can take them on that. So, it’s really open on the barriers.”

Once someone is in the program, the employees will help with a variety of things, including filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, getting into school and helping out with some things financially.

“They may call and say, ‘my tires are bald,’ and we help them with those kind of support services,” said Dickson. “There are a lot of things that we can do in our program, but we can’t pay speeding tickets or fines or any kind of criminal activity.”

Dickson and her team has worked with thousands of students over the years, including Brooke Coleman, a former Tennessee College of Applied Technology student and work-based learning student who currently works as a supervisor at System Integrations in Lebanon.

“They helped be get into Tennessee College of Applied Technology, they took care of my books,” said Coleman. “They were kind of like the family I needed through the whole thing. I ended up leaving, and I really needed a job, and they actually didn’t give up on me. They got me into a work experience program, which was kind of like an internship, but they were paying me to go to work at System Integrations for three to four months, which I got hired on there from it. So, they helped me find that opportunity to find where I’m working at today.”

For people considering the program, Coleman said it provided some needed guidance for her following high school.

“They guided me through it to where I wasn’t alone and just trying to figure it out on my own, and, you know, they just helped me get to where I needed to go pretty quickly, so I could be on my feet and take care of myself without anybody helping me,” said Coleman.

Dickson said the workers with the program develop a personal relationship with everyone in the program. She still keeps in touch with a lot of the previous participants in the program.

“We really do care about what they do, where they go, their families, their kids,” said Dickson. “I mean, we’re in some of their weddings. We’re doing a wedding for one of ours in September who said, ‘will you come and help us?’ So, we’re helping her in her wedding. One of our case managers is actually the matron of honor in her wedding.”

For more information about the program, contact the YouthLinks staff at 615-444-3282.

By Jacob Smith