City program puts at-risk youth on right Track

PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philly Future Trackers gather near 30th and Master.
PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philly Future Trackers gather near 30th and Master.
Posted: March 17, 2014

PICKING UP back-alley debris turned Rosemary Goode's life around.

Six months ago, the 22-year-old was struggling to support her two sons - and a third on the way - on her cashier's salary from a North Philadelphia Fresh Grocer, and wasn't feeling fulfilled in her life.

Then, tragedy struck: Her infant son died a few days after birth. She turned to the Department of Human Services for help, and was given an application for a program called Philly Future Track.

Fast-forward to last week, when a beaming Goode gushed about the program and the interview it helped her line up with the Please Touch Museum.

"Being here has motivated me more, made me want more out of life," she said. "It's inspired me to teach my kids to want more out of life, that they don't have to be the same as everyone else out here."

Goode is one of nearly 100 young adults participating in this year's version of Future Track, a program created by the Streets Department to provide at-risk youths with the skills they need to succeed in life.

"Our intent was to holistically look at a portion of our youth that didn't seem to have a direction in terms of what to do with their lives," said city Revenue Department Commissioner Clarina Tolson. "The intent was to create a sincere work ethic in order to build them into good citizens."

Before leading the Revenue Department, Tolson headed the Streets Department, and was one of the driving forces behind Future Track, now in its second year. She helped develop the program at the request of Mayor Nutter, who she said saw an opportunity and need for such a service among the city's youth.

And, she said, the Streets Department was a strong vehicle for it.

"I think there's a sensitivity in the department for managing and working with people who are unskilled, who've had challenges with entering the work environment," she said. "Some people working with the department have had similar background to kids, and we manage that daily."

The program, which runs from November to April, takes a two-pronged approach to meeting its goal: Its members, usually between 18 and 25, spend two days a week in class brushing up on job skills and "career preparedness," and the remaining days out in the streets, working on projects for the department, according to Tolson.

"It takes you back to the old logic that hard work never hurt anybody and it builds character," she said. "After they go through back-breaking labor like they have, they have a new appreciation for all [kinds of] work.

"It's almost like boot camp. They don't know about that going in, but realize it afterward."

Angela Pannell can attest to that.

The single mom was a member of Future Track's inaugural class, and found a new sense of self through clearing trash and debris from alleys - the program's physical component.

"Something so simple gave me a chance to shine and a sense of importance," she said. "We got to go out and actually make a difference in the community. I don't think I could have done that on my own."

It's given her more than that. Pannell, 27, now works for the Streets Department as an engineer aide in surveying, a job she never dreamed she could hold three years ago as a Community College of Philadelphia student struggling to choose a major.

"I feel like I've found my place," she said. "This is what I want to do until I retire."

Stories like Pannell's have inspired the department to push forward with the program.

"The planets are aligning with Future Track," said David Perri, Tolson's successor as Streets Department commissioner.

"We're creating more livable communities in Philly by cleaning up areas that had been neglected for, in some cases, decades," he added. "At the same time, we're bringing out the potential in young adults who are just a few basic job skills away from meaningful employment."

Under Perri, this year's class has continued to clear alleys, mainly in South Philly, in addition to working to remove bandit signs posted illegally throughout the city.

In the classroom, the students get a different kind of education. Besides some "refreshers" in math and language skills, they learn about money management, resume writing and how to appeal to college and job recruiters, said Lakeisha Horne, who works closely with the program as executive director of the Community Women's Education Project. Its Kensington office houses Future Track's classes.

Horne said that when many program participants started, they asked why they had to complete the classroom component when they just wanted a paycheck.

"Now they understand their roles in their communities, how to interact with their families, and are awakened to larger issues in the city," she said.

Horne watched the first class of Future Trackers grow and mature, and said that some current members already have left the program to accept jobs and to pursue other opportunities.

"It's all about relating to them," she said. "Many of them come from situations where they've been in and out of group homes from a young age, where they felt they weren't wanted or were thrown away; some even have felonies.

"When I run into graduates outside the building, I'm always amazed at their transformations - they all have become strong, motivated young adults, and that's exactly what we've set out to do here."

" @Vellastrations


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