Photos courtesy of Mecklenburg County, N.C.
Brea Spencer spreads mulch during a service project performed by teen mentees in Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s Recreation Employment Corp program.
If Mecklenburg County, N.C. was looking for a standard bearer for its “Recreation Employment Corp” program, it need look no further than Kenyon Smutherman.
The 17-year-old high school senior is about to complete the 40-week REC program that pairs teens with mentors on the staff of the county’s Park and Recreation Department. The mentees are paid minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, for up to 10 hours of work per week.
One of the program’s goals is to expose the youths to career options in the field of parks and recreation, and provide them “an opportunity to visualize the future.”
Kenyon, as a result of the program, is now visualizing the futures of others — as well as considering a different one for himself.
“Originally, I was thinking that I wanted to pursue a career in academia,” he said. “But recently, I’ve been focusing on more public service, possibly working with a nonprofit organization or working in the government sector — just trying to help make the next generation have a better future.”
He credits his experience with the REC program, in part, for his shift of focus.
“Working with my coworkers and just seeing how dedicated they were to helping all the kids move forward — and have really just great experiences in childhood — it really inspired me to try to do the same,” Kenyon said.
Watch a video on the Mecklenberg County Mentor/Mentee Program
He is one of 20 teens ages 14 to 17 participating in the program that began last February. It is designed to help local youths gain “valuable first-time work experience and positive life skills.” Each is paired with a recreation facility manager from centers throughout the state’s most populous county, home to Charlotte.
The program is designed to “empower at-risk youths to make positive life choices and maximize their personal potential,” according to its mission statement. “Our recreation centers, the majority of them, are in in areas that have communities and teens that are really in need of mentoring,” said Lola Massad, division director, community and recreation services. Many of the teens live within walking distance of the centers at which they work.
Park and Recreation staff recruited potential candidates — mostly teens already active in Park and Recreation programs — and developed an application process that included a written essay and an in-person interview. Sixty teens applied.
Terri Stowers (standing), Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, listens during a class for mentees, each of whom is paired with a parks and rec employee.
Makayla Bowe was one of them, though she didn’t think she nailed her interview. Marquisha Clayburn, her mentor, begs to differ. She is facility manager at the county’s Revolution Park Sports Academy.
“Most of them, it was their first time ever interviewing for a position,” Clayburn explained. “They were a little nervous, especially Makayla. She did a great job in the interview; she answered the questions very well, was confident, even though she thinks she wasn’t… and that was one of the reasons we hired her.”
The two found they have a lot in common. Makayla has hoop dreams and wants to go to college and play basketball — and eventually become a nurse anesthesiologist. Clayburn, who played basketball in college, can relate. In addition to exposing Makayla to the inner workings of parks and recreation, she gives her mentee basketball advice. “That’s one of the things we work on and we get to talk about all the time,” she said, as Makayla job-shadows her mentor.
“She’s a hustle box,” Clayburn said of her mentee’s ability on the court — and likely off as well.
Calandra Barnes mentors a teen at West Charlotte Recreation Center, where she is facility manager. She believes the REC program is giving kids a “behind-the-scenes” look at the world of recreation and parks, and sense that recreation staff does more than “just get out balls and play.”
“It definitely creates an awareness of the planning process and implementing the programs, and how we advertise and how we work and do our community service as well as our customer service,” she said. “Sometimes people are not very familiar with why we do the things that we do and how we run as a business.”
For Massad, all signs indicate that the REC program has been a success. “This first go of it, we had a budget and enough funding to do 20 teens,” she said. “The Board of County Commissioners felt like this program was very successful and wanted to expand it. We’re expanding it this next round to 44 teens.” And next year, the mentors will include recreation specialists, not just facility managers.
She believes the program could easily be duplicated in other counties, with or without paying the mentees. But she says the compensation buys commitment from the teens. “It gives them the resources to be able to get some confidence … as they approach the time to get into the job market.”
Whether Kenyon Smutherman came in with confidence or acquired it, he has turned into a great ambassador for the program.
“A lot of times when we see the kids that come inside the rec center, we see so much hope and so much promise and so much potential,” he said. “And I feel like that’s really why we’re all here — because we’re all trying to help them get to that point in their life where they can make a difference in the world, and where they can really just change the world for the better.”
He is confident that recreation might be the key that helps him unlock that potential in others.