United Way engages community partners to help thousands of area youth find their way


Samantha Hurtado-Holguin, left and her youth academic navigator Evelia Gutierrez.

Published by Omaha World-Herald
Written by Mike Watkins, Special for United Way of the Midlands

As a lifelong educator, Greg Emmel, executive director of Omaha’s D2 Center, has seen more than his fair share of disengaged, disconnected youth.

And while the numbers of those impacted fluctuate year-to-year, decade-to-decade, the reasons largely remain the same.

Bad home life. Financial difficulties. Bullied. Pregnant. Abused. All of these factor into youth becoming disconnected from school and work – to the tune of approximately 6.7 million people ages 16 to 24 nationwide and 8,000 in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro.

Separated from the very systems and institutions designed to help them succeed, many of these young people struggle to find a path forward. But despite their challenges, they possess enormous potential, leading
many organizations to refer to them as “Opportunity Youth.”

“These young people tend to be among our most vulnerable to drop out of school or fail to keep a job because they lack direction from within and from their own environment and the people around them,” said Emmel, who was teacher and administrator for 33 years before moving to the D2 Center almost 10 years ago.

“They feel forgotten or unwanted – lots of reasons that haven’t changed much over the last few decades. But we see opportunities to help by intervening and building trust so they can have some hope.”

Recognizing the complex challenges these youth face, United Way of the Midlands brought together the Opportunity Youth Alliance. More than 50 nonprofit partners strong, the Alliance works to provide prevention, intervention and sustainability supports to help disconnected young people find their way to a brighter future.

Prevention is the first line of defense

One of the best strategies to help young people? Prevent them from becoming Opportunity Youth in the first place.

Several Alliance partners are striving to do exactly that. Programs at nonprofits like the Latino Center of the Midlands, FAMILY, OneWorld Community Health Centers, Child Saving Institute and the D2 Center provide
youth with the support they need to stay in school or maintain steady employment.

The D2 Center works to put disengaged and out-of-school youth ages 15-21 on an educational pathway to earn a high school diploma and prepare for post-secondary educational opportunities a career.

Through its Youth Academic Navigator program, students who are struggling in school are matched with a case manager who checks in with them frequently and ensures they are making progress and earning credits.

“Most of these young people haven’t had a lot of success with adults in their lives, so we want to make sure to provide stable relationships,” Emmel said.

A caring mentor can make all the difference.

“They want to know that an adult in their lives cares about them, visits them, texts them, checks on them to make sure they stay on track,” he said.

Intervening helps youth make better choices

Prevention isn’t always an option.

Opportunity Youth face a variety of barriers that make it difficult for them to successfully engage in school or a job, including mental health issues, lack of reliable transportation and lack of livable wages.

And because many of these youth have experienced trauma, when they face adversity, they often exhibit a “fight or flight” response and lash out or run away, said Ronda Newman, vice president of Project Everlast Omaha.

“This is a day-to-day existence, with no ability to envision a future or career,” she said. “These young people have little or no supportive adults in their lives. It becomes a lonely, isolating existence. Young people lose hope for a better life for themselves.”

That’s when nonprofits or initiatives like Therapy Place Inc., Omaha Home for Boys, Boys Town and Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare and Project Everlast intervene.

Project Everlast is a statewide, youth-led initiative providing resources, connections and support to young adults as they age out of foster care. They work with partners in the community to address some of the most difficult barriers faced by young people.

“We’ve got a lot of young people out there who are under the radar,” Newman said. “They can’t find the resources to help them get up on their feet and stay there.”

Coaching is probably the single most impactful strategy the organization uses to support Opportunity Youth.

Known as Central Access Navigators, coaches help young people navigate the complex system of resources available to them. They ensure those services are working together to provide the youth with a customized system of support.

Project Everlast is also working to build a sustainable transportation program that assists young people who need rides for employment or education.

“We are currently concluding a pilot that has been very successful, and will be looking for funding to sustain this program,” she said.

Sustaining programs results in brighter futures

Even after youth have secured a job or started a career with a company, they are still at risk of experiencing a “destabilizing” event, like the breakdown of their car or a disruption in their childcare arrangements.

Programs through Metropolitan Community College, Goodwill Industries, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Children’s Square U.S.A. and Greater Omaha WorkLab provide further support and help navigating challenges.

“A youth who has achieved some amount of stability and has been connected to employment is still at the beginning of their journey to self-sufficiency and independence,” said Chad Mares, director of workforce services for GrOW.

GrOW is a program operated out of the Greater Omaha Chamber, and its services are offered at workplaces as an employer benefit. Employees, including those who fall into the Opportunity Youth classification, can then meet with navigators who offer confidential assistance, connect employees with services and community resources, provide career and financial coaching and more.

“GrOW’s status as a third party allows us to maintain confidentiality with the employee and use that as a basis for establishing a trusting relationship with them,” Mares said. “We’re equipped to handle some of the more difficult life challenges that employers are not well-equipped to manage.”

These range from an employee’s financial health and literacy to transportation and family challenges.

“Our goal is that every employer has the service as a part of their benefits package,” he said.

But as GrOW and other Alliance programs expand and aim to serve increasing numbers of youth, there will be one major ingredient needed to ensure progress.

“The foundation has been laid for ensuring that more of our residents are able to benefit from the prosperity of the community as a whole. The work is just beginning though. Going forward, these programs will continue to be successful only if they have the support of the community,” Mares said.

“There are a number of ways to be involved and lend support, from giving your time or making a donation. An easy way to do that is through a United Way campaign.”

For more information about Opportunity Youth and the Opportunity Youth Alliance, visit unitedwaymidlands.org.