ELKTON — Every day during the spring term, Kyah Shepherd, 16, left Elkton High School after sixth period and made her way over to the Elkton Community Education Center instead of seventh and eighth period.
She was part of the inaugural class of three students in the work-study program at the center where high school students could earn high school credit and job experience by working in the gardens and nursery.
“We’d kind of go with whoever, wherever, and do whatever needed to be done,” Shepherd said. “It’s actually really neat to be able to work here. It was a good place to start. You don’t have to have previous work experience like other jobs.”
Kyah worked at the center last summer, before starting her sophomore year. She knew she wanted an opportunity to work with plants and get outside, so she jumped at the chance.
“I’m kind of obsessed with plants,” Shepherd said. “I wanted to be outside. It was more hands-on learning. Wherever the plants are, that’s where I’ll go.”
Right now, she is planning on working for a nursery when she graduates high school in 2021, which center director Marjory Hamann said is one of the reasons the center started the program this year.
“The year-round program is really about career exploration,” Hamann said. “That program is really heavily aligned with our nursery so they learn about plant propagation and running a nursery and doing spring landscaping and get a little bit of exposure to landscape design. We try to expose them to a lot of different skills and roles in the nursery environment.”
The summer program started in 2003 and has employed 135 individual students.
“We’ve selected jobs that help us manage ECEC, but the positions also help students who live in this rural community gain skills that are really transferrable to rural areas,” Hamann said.
In 1992, youth ages 14 to 18 made up 6.9 percent of the population and 3.5 percent of the workforce. By 2017, they accounted for 5.3 percent of the population and only 1.9 percent of the workforce according to the Oregon Employment Department. Youth employment peaked in 2006 at 2,204.
Each summer, the center employs about 18 students to work for part or all of the summer and it has employed a total of 135 students. The jobs vary between the café, the nursery and tour guides at the fort.
Nathan Falick, 15, has never worked at the center before and doesn’t really like talking to people, but decided he needed to work on that and start finding ways to interact with people more often. He applied to be a tour guide at Fort Umpqua, where his whole job is talking to people.
“I usually don’t like talking to people,” Falick said. “I use this as a way to interact with people. I can do the whole people thing and get paid for it. I’ve always been really shy and more to myself.”
Hamann said shy students like Falick are pretty common and she loves seeing how they grow from the beginning of one summer to the beginning of the next summer.
“We are the largest source of off-farm employment in the area,” Hamann said. “More important is the transition from the classroom to the workplace. It’s the experience of working with a team and being responsible.”
Angelique Perrone, 17, has come back again and again and doesn’t seem shy running the café as the student manager, but she said she was quiet when she started at the center four years ago.
“I wanted to find a way where my personality could serve the community best,” Perrone said. “I love to learn and I can be quiet. I could keep learning something every day here. I came back because I fell in love with ECEC. It’s so calm and supportive. I felt more comfortable talking with people here and talking with complete strangers from all over the world.”
She said she applied for all of the three positions because she just wanted to be a part of the organization.
In her third year, Hamann asked her to be one of the first students to take the management track for the program. Hamann said she wasn’t surprised that Perrone graduated as valedictorian of her class at Elkton High School.
Perrone is in her last year at the center and said she’s learned a lot about professionalism in the workplace and customer service skills in the café, as well as the ability to see the whole picture as the manager. She is going to George Fox University in August and hopes to be a physical therapist or own a taekwondo studio. She said either way, all of the experience she gained at the center will help her in her future.
“I’ve learned to connect with people very easily which I will need as a physical therapist,” Perrone said. “Having experience as a manager, if I want to open my own practice or open a studio, I’ll be able to see the whole picture.”