It's morning and already steamy, and Atiya Olloway and Rishard Pelton are in good spirits while hard at work.
Donning a uniform of green T-shirts, with glistening beads of sweat on their foreheads and a pair of large shovels, the Omaha North High School students busily scoop sand from the sidewalk near the playground at Pipal Park.
They're both smiling. It's payday, and they're nearing the end of week six of the nine-week Summer Works program, an offering organized through the University of Nebraska at Omaha that, now in its second year, is putting 150 teenagers — most of whom live in north Omaha — to work at city parks, golf courses and other outdoor venues.
“We get to help clean up the community, so that's been cool,” said Pelton. “I wanted to do this this summer to keep me out of trouble and to stay active.
“If I weren't doing this, I'd probably just be laying down in bed, but I'm glad I'm doing this because I'm up early in the morning, workin', then I get to go home and be about my day.”
Summer Works is funded by private donations from the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation and the Sherwood Foundation. The program caters to students between the ages of 15 and 18 who live mostly in north Omaha and who have no prior work experience. The students are paid $7.25 an hour.
The official goals of the Summer Works program are simple:
» Respond to the needs of Omaha's high school youths.
» Teach them new skills. Give them work experience. Expand their understanding of being community members.
» Help beautify and restore the parks and other properties.
But under the surface, the program is much more than that.
It also sets up the participants with savings accounts through Bank of the West and bus passes so that they can arrive to work on time and have a safe ride home after the workday is over.
The bank accounts, said Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director of the Kiewit Foundation, were a tricky hurdle to overcome. Since the students are minors, opening a bank account typically requires a parent to co-sign the account, which would also give the adults access to the kids' money, Ziegenbein said.
In an effort to avoid that, Bob Dalrymple, an executive vice president with Bank of the West, agreed to co-sign every single one of the accounts, which require the students to physically go to the bank in order to withdraw funds. Program organizers hope the students will develop an understanding of how banks work and build relationships with their bankers.
There have been other, similar programs in the past that have failed, Ziegenbein said. The hope is that, after this year, organizers will create a blueprint that other communities can use to organize similar privately funded programs, she said.
“I could see this working nationally,” Ziegenbein said.
On a normal day, the teens arrive at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, 6316 N. 30th St., between 8:30 and 9 a.m. From there they meet with their teams, typically made up of about six students who are led by team leaders — schoolteachers, college graduates or master's-degree students who are hired at the beginning of the summer to help coordinate the program.
After a short discussion and a light breakfast, the teens turn in their cellphones, which are stowed in plastic bags, and are issued their work assignments for the day. On this particular day, a handful of groups are assigned to Pipal Park, near 78th Street and West Center Road, where they were tasked with cleaning up the playground, painting fresh lines in parking lots, raking leaves, spreading mulch and brushing a fresh coat of green paint onto the park's picnic tables.
Sam Bojanski, 25, who next year will be a teacher at Omaha South High School, is the group's senior leader, directing both the students and their group leaders. Bojanski is a no-nonsense fellow. Before doling out instructions for the group, he has a few nits to pick.
“In the morning, I don't want a ‘what's up?' or a head nod,” he barked. “I'd like to hear a ‘good morning.'
That strict approach, he said, is important to convey because that's how it is in the real world.
“I've worked with kids for a long time, but this is a whole different ballgame when you're out here paying them and asking them to do things that they really don't want to do,” he said. “It's pretty tedious work, but they do a really good job.”
While the tasks may be tedious, many of the students appreciate the opportunity. The 150 admitted into the program this year were whittled down from more than 550 applicants. A year ago there were 500 applicants for 100 positions.
Olloway, while taking a short break from shoveling, said she's grown a new appreciation for keeping the community's parks clean.
“Now, I get mad when I see people throwing stuff on the ground,” the 17-year-old said. “And mulch. I haven't ever noticed that before I started this program. It does make stuff look a lot nicer.”
If it weren't for Summer Works, Arkeisha Williams, 15, also an Omaha North student, might be doing something illegal, she said.
“It's helping me stay out of trouble,” she said. “Summer Works has helped me a lot, because I would be doing bad stuff right now, so instead of getting into trouble, I work.”
After lunch at noon, the teens work until 3 p.m. and then head home. On Fridays, they participate in community field trips. Last week they listened to a presentation from Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon and defense attorney Jim Schaefer. Previous trips have included the Old Market, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, the Joslyn Art Museum and a lunch at a sit-down restaurant.
“For a lot of the kids, they've never done a lot of these things,” Ziegenbein said. “They're learning a lot more about their community and learning about the kinds of jobs that are available.”
The positive impact isn't just on the kids, though, said Kathe Oleson Lyons, Summer Works director. The City of Omaha's parks department also reaps massive benefits.
Kenny Humpal, a city parks employee who works as a liaison with Summer Works, said the teams of program participants are able to complete jobs in hours that would take city employees days or even weeks to fit into their schedules.
“It's normal stuff that city employees would do, but we get so busy with mowing, tree work, trash, that it's just nice having the extra sets of hands,” Humpal said. “Some of the tree work (the kids) do, at Lake Cunningham, they cleared this huge overlook hill of trees, and when you have 30 people doing it, it goes quick.
“If the Parks Department were to go do it with two or three guys, it would take days.”
This year, the program is expected to cost roughly $750,000. Ziegenbein said there's a “very strong” possibility that the program will be back for a third year next summer with a new group of students. Each person can participate in the program only once.
“What we're trying to do is empower these students who want to learn about the world of work,” she said. “So many programs that have been there offering programs to these kids haven't kept their strengths up and have disappointed the students.
“Ideally, I would love to see us continue this.”
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