First Job Inspires New Future for Formerly Homeless Teen

Learn to Earn Helps Teens Like Nelma Get Vital Job Experience

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Nelma needed a job. For nearly two months, the Portland teenager submitted application after application, without success. Even when she had interviews that she thought went well, employers didn’t call her back.

Nelma knew despite the challenges of her job search she needed to keep applying. Her family had just moved to Maine from South Africa and after initially experiencing homelessness and staying at local shelters, they had a home to call their own. To keep it, the family needed Nelma’s
extra income.

During her search, Nelma discovered Learn to Earn, a local service that helps young people get work experience. Learn to Earn is a program run by Street Academy, a United Way of Southern Maine partner. The connection brought Nelma’s Maine experience full circle.

The Opportunity to Thrive, Not Just Survive
Street Academy’s mission is to ensure that homeless youth in Maine have every opportunity to thrive, grow and become productive members of their community through education and workforce training.

Young people experiencing homelessness often face substantial odds. Students experiencing homelessness are 87% more likely to drop out of school than their housed peers. Services like Street Academy help ensure young people get the help they need.

Street Academy and its Learn to Earn program are run by a two-person team of educators, Joline Freidman and Joel Beaule. With Learn to Earn, Joline and Joel work with area businesses to place young people in temporary paid jobs. Every time someone is placed they earn job experience, get a reference, or are hired directly by the employer.

Joel describes Learn to Earn as a way to help young people transition from surviving to thriving.

“Our hope is that [Learn to Earn] allows them to get from a place where they're staying at the shelter and accessing services at that shelter to being able to get their own place in the community,” he said.

A Familiar Face
When Nelma arrived at the Street Academy office, she was surprised to find a familiar face: Joline. The two first met when Nelma and her sister were staying at the Preble Street Teen Center where Joline and Joel are embedded educators.

Joline would check on Nelma and her sister to make sure they were ok. Nelma remembered the kindness this stranger showed her early on as she was navigating a new country.

“[Joline] was really sweet. [She would] make sure that I was enrolled in school and if I had everything I needed to start school,” said Nelma.

Staying Hopeful by Helping
Joline knew of a job opportunity at the Resource Center, one of Preble Street’s soup kitchens. Local nonprofits and social service agencies often depend on Learn to Earn participants when volunteer turn out is low. During the tightest COVID-19 restrictions, when many services saw an increase in need but fewer volunteers, Learn to Earn participants filled the gap.

Nelma initially helped in janitorial services at the Resource Center and then moved into the kitchen. Soon the job took on a different meaning than gaining work experience and helping contribute to her family’s rent; it became a source of pride and fulfillment.

“[I like] that I can still help people like me. People that were in the same situation as I was. People that are thankful...for the food,” said Nelma. “It's just nice to see them smiling and being able to do something for them.”

Nelma was eventually hired directly at the Resource Center and was the first Learn to Earn participant hired full time by Preble Street. Leah McDonald, Teen Services Director at Preble Street credits Nelma’s compassion and dedication.

“[We hired Nelma] because of her incredible work ethic. She's delightful. She's a wonderful person to have in the kitchen. She's able to build relationships with young people who are coming through the food line, and she makes a mean curry,” said Leah.

Nelma continues to work for Preble Street, now in its Central Kitchen. She graduated from Portland Public High School in 2020 and enrolled in Southern Maine Community College. Her first job has made a lasting impression on Nelma and she hopes to continue to help people by becoming a physician’s assistant.

“I want to be successful in a way that I’m helping people, but I’m also helping myself and my family,” she said.

Just like Nelma, a first work experience can be life changing for many young people in the Greater Portland community. United Way of Southern Maine is proud to partner with services like Street Academy and Learn to Earn that help more people to thrive, not just survive. Your generous support of United Way can make that possible for more people. Please donate today. 

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