Among Warwick’s weed-choked historical cemetery site No. 114, are the remains of the family of Civil War naval captain and professor Samuel Greene.
With paths to reach it long unused, and the headstone yard reminiscent of a jungle, the Greene plot is out of sight, tucked behind an insurance business.
But it’s no longer a jungle thanks to the efforts of 10 teenagers.
They’re all part of the Comprehensive Community Action Program’s (CCAP) summer employment plan called Learn to Earn.
CCAP is a Cranston-based private nonprofit agency dedicated to helping Rhode Islanders in need, with a focus on ending poverty.
By late morning on July 10, more than 40 large yard waste bags were diligently filled using only rakes, gloves and some elbow grease, many overflowing with debris and hand-pulled weeds. Lines of fallen grave markers, many marked by American flags, looked like successive rows of crooked teeth. Gravestones, some as old as the state itself, stood surprisingly straight, identifying marks long eroded away, indiscernible.
Even after hours of raking and landscaping, the cemetery was only halfway cleared.
“We’ll have it done by Friday, hopefully,” said Gary Littlefield, coordinator of the Learn to Earn component of CCAP, while at Tuesday’s cleanup.
At the end of the workweek, young workers receive training exercises in financial literacy and leadership.
Littlefield’s summer youth job preparedness program offers employment to teens in high school, college or GED programs. “It’s money-smart. We really want to train the kids in things that they’ll need to get a job. The goal is experience that will better prepare them for the workforce,” said Littlefield.
The youths help clear away and maintain under-funded city sites like beaches, parks and historical cemeteries – around some grave sites dating back as far back as the mid-17th century. All these public sites are integral parts of the city’s history and culture that must be preserved, says a greatly appreciative Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian.
“We’ve got a whole series of incredibly important grave sites that tell the story of our city. Keeping them cared for and preserved is very important to the whole city, to protect our heritage,” the mayor said over the phone.
The program run defies the state’s dismal youth job market, which hasn’t been kind to its young labor force. The 2011 average unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-old Rhode Island workers was 29 percent, markedly high compared to 11 percent of the work force as a whole.
The good news is that anyone age 16 to 18 can qualify and apply through CCAP’s youth centers for a summer job. Local teens can go through CCAP’s Warwick location in the Buttonwoods Community Center on 3027 West Shore Rd., which opened just six years ago with funding from the Rhode Island Job Development Fund and Workforce Investment Act (WIA).
“The fact that young people go out of their way to be a part of this [community service] process is pretty amazing. This gives us the ability to get things done, and everyone benefits. It’s good all around,” the mayor said.
With funding from the state department of Labor and Training and department of Human Services, Littlefield and CCAP staff designed the youth employment program in a longtime partnership with the city.
They’ve also been deeply involved with chairperson Margaret ‘Pegee’ Malcolm of Warwick’s Commission on Historical Cemeteries for the last three years, cleaning up the city’s historic burial sites.
Ultimately, the youth employment program provides one week of paid job readiness prep – including resume building classes, employee etiquette exercises and tips on giving a winning interview. Then come five 20-hour weeks of work – hard, hard work, all community service style jobs that the city desperately relies on but is unable to fund itself. Paid $7.40 an hour, the kids will walk away with almost $1,000 from their CCAP summer employment.
The training is a gift that keeps on giving, one that all its youth participants are quite grateful for – the site cleanup is, for many, their first real job, and a great way to begin. Some are in it for the money and experience, with aspirations of trade school.
Jake Nappa, a 17-year-old father of two and part-time tradesman, looks to use the skills to prepare for the Job Corp, and a potential welding or manufacturing job at Electric Boat.
A CCAP second-timer, Amber Palazzo, a Pilgrim High School student, saw a change in her attitude toward work following the job preparedness courses with John Gomes, a CCAP job prep teacher.
“[With CCAP] I have a resume I didn’t have before, and it makes me want to work even more,” she said.
Ivan Perez, a Toll Gate student, says it’s his first job, too, and is looking for more – not only for experience but to help out his mother and father.
“Now I know what to do when searching for a job. It’s going to help me down the road, to be more confident especially when being interviewed for one. If I weren’t in summer employment [with CCAP], I’d still be looking for work because I need to help out my family [financially],” he said.
The job’s not just about making money, even if it looks that way, says Littlefield.
“It’s good to get a paycheck at the end of the week. It makes the kids feel good about themselves. They gain an appreciation for hard work,” said the CCAP director.