A few months ago I was asked to suggest someone from the City of Enid that would be good to have on the listening panel for the local Youth Speak Out that would take place at the end of March.  The speakers would be talking about issues they face in their lives they are concerned with in Enid  – bullying, sexual orientation, religion, etc. – things you don’t generally hear kids talk about, especially in a room full of people.  Most adults don’t love public speaking; I can’t imagine what it took for those kids to do it.

So, here’s where I tell on everybody.

My suggestion was Eric Benson, the City Manager, because, you know, I’m a minion and all that.  My experience was that he could be very diplomatic and I knew him to be someone that didn’t tend to categorize people or care much about what others had said about them.  He makes up his mind on their merits, not their labels.  When I decided to run for Commissioner, I gave him a list of things that I thought would be attacked and honestly, I was a little nervous (I know, hard to imagine…) and he (in more colorful words) said, “Who cares?” which told me much more about his character than those few words could.

There was some hesitation about having him on the panel because admittedly, Mr. Benson has a bit (OK, that’s a lie – a lot) of a commanding presence and can be somewhat intimidating I guess. He’s a big guy with a big voice and purposeful speech.  He doesn’t hold much back and can maybe come across as a little gruff.  Plus he’s fairly conservative and some of the issues may be more on the liberal side of the fence.

Suffice it to say that it took a little nudging and assurance that he would not indeed eat any of our young and it took a good deal or arm twisting to get him to agree to do it and in the end, he was there.

The panel was comprised of several leaders in the community – people that would be tolerant and knowledgeable and able to relate to the kids.

There were several kids that spoke on various topics like not being Christian in the Bible Belt, the hardships of being a child with disabilities at school, being homosexual in high school, what it’s like to be a minority, and the lack of employment opportunities for underprivileged teens.  These were, indeed, some tough topics for these kids to get up and bare their souls about – granted, some were not as squirmy as others, but it took a lot for these kids to do it in front of about a hundred adults.  The girl that spoke about homosexuality was loudly heckled by the same man that came up to me and told me how his 11 year old son had contemplated suicide for being bullied.  It was a tough evening on several levels.

The interesting thing about the panel was that even though they had been hand-picked for their tolerance and compassion (except for that one mean Benson guy), a lot of them simply didn’t have anything to say and the tension and awkward silence would begin to mount and frankly, it seemed that these kids were going to be left hung out to dry, but in every instance Mr. Benson would say something to ease the situation – either to offer an idea or just something to simply let them know they had been heard and their efforts were appreciated.  Jim Beierschmitt, the principal at Enid High, also stepped in several times and offered words of wisdom and assurance, but at the end of the day, the guy they feared would scare the kids the most ended up being the one that eased the uncomfortable situations the most.

One of the youth that spoke discussed growing up impoverished in Enid and how it was difficult for someone in his position to obtain a way to earn a wage in the summer.  Another teen spoke about the same thing, saying that if there were more job opportunities for kids they would have less time to get into trouble.  Without hesitation Mr. Benson offered them jobs.

After the speak out, I assumed the boys he’d offered jobs to showed up and it happened, but apparently that wasn’t exactly how it went down.

So now, the rest of the story…

Fast forward a few months.  At a commission meeting in July, there was a group of kids at the study session and then they appeared at the council meeting as well.  Mr. Benson made the announcement that these kids had been participating in the summer Youth Job Corps program at the City of Enid and he wanted them to come forward and be recognized.  I was unaware of the program but knowing the first part of the story, was extremely happy to learn of its existence.

“At the Speak Out I was struck by the paucity of opportunities like this in Enid,” Benson stated.  “I’ve seen other cities with great programs.  For all the soup kitchens, goodwill stores and competing charities we have – even dogs, it struck me that at least in my opinion, we haven’t invested appropriately in our strongest commodity, kids.  Maybe I’m wrong but I see little evidence of a program that instills working values in young people and God knows we are suffering from a lack of adequate parenting.  That was evidenced by the forum.  I went in sort of curious about what I’d hear because there was no advance info; I came out perplexed by our lack of community efforts.  Hell, even Drummond does more for their kids than what I’ve seen.  Again, I could be wrong about that.”

Benson went on to explain that he wanted to help people that were willing to take the opportunity to better themselves.  “This was Eric Benson’s simple gesture to touch “some” youngsters and see if it took root.  I still owe the guys and gals who did that for me; for whatever reason they did it, but it worked.”

When asked how it went from an idea to actual execution, he stated, “I outlined what I wanted to Jason and he brilliantly designed precisely what they needed.”

Jason Orr is the Operations Manager for the Public Works Department at the City of Enid.  I noted that from the inception of the idea to the implementation of it was a very short time.  I was curious about what the main goals were and knowing Benson, thought surely it more than just providing a “job.”

Orr explained.  “The Youth Job Corps program officially kicked off the first week of June this year, but, its genesis started brewing a long time before then.  To me, the program was a culmination of every virtue that has been instilled in me from the first day I arrived as an intern with the City of Enid last summer.  Right off the bat the intern group was broken into our new way of life by none other than the City Manager.  That day is still vivid in my mind: “You can do one of two things this summer,” Mr. Benson stated in a direct manner, “You can show up here and stick your thumb up your ass all summer long and not gain a damn thing, or, you can put in the effort necessary to succeed and determine your own destiny.”  It wasn’t a statement that I expected to hear from a modern-day “professional”, but, I have never been very impressed with those that try to conform to what everyone else thinks anyway.  From that moment forward I honestly can say I have learned the true meaning of mentorship and so I was naturally very ecstatic when presented with the opportunity to pass along this exposure to ten high school students for the summer.  In fact, that was my main goal: impress in these kids the same set of values that have been handed down to me over the past year and ensure that each student left here better than when they arrived.

You mentioned the short amount of time from concept to implementation.  Looking back, I now realize how true that statement is.  After work one day I headed down to Dave’s Barber Shop to get my hair cut.  I walked in to see none other than Mr. Benson seated in the barber’s chair.  The barber informed me Benson would be the last haircut of the day and that I would have to come back another time.  Not letting this unplanned encounter go to waste, Benson threw out there that the City of Enid was to host a summer program for high school students and that I was the candidate he had in mind to head up this endeavor.  Of course, my answer was an instant yes, but I’m quite sure my “yes” probably resembled the “yes” of a girl that had just been proposed to by the love of her life.  At least, that’s how it felt to me.  An instant rush overcame me and as I left the barber shop and staggered to my truck, the sense of urgency quickly set in. I distinctly remember that night and how it felt to lie sleepless in anticipation of the next day.

I knew from the very beginning that this project had the potential to tremendously impact the lives of not only these ten students, but the community as a whole.  I have only been in Enid since last summer but I hear there has been a noticeable change over the past few years.  From the stories I have heard, this was not a dramatic, sweeping occurrence that happened over night; rather, it was a gradual process that was built upon and won with a renewed trust that had all but vanished between the City and its citizens.  Not only had the citizenry become largely skeptical of any activity the City attempted, but they also seemed to have lost all sense of confidence in themselves and their ability to control the direction of their own future.  This sentiment was captured most accurately by an outsider’s observation during the Gateway Enid development that people outside of Enid believe more in this city than its own citizens do.  I like to compare that mere thought to a picture, because it says a thousand words about this town.

With that said, the Youth Job Corps program through necessity had to be more than just a summer job for some kids; it had to be a life changer.  We had to take in those that were apprehensive about the future and prove that we undeniably have a stake in who we are as individuals and as a community.  It is up to each of us to take charge and make a difference instead of waiting on the next person to do it for us. That premise had to be the encompassing essence of the entire program – anything less would be a disservice to the community and flat-out unacceptable.

It would have been very easy to hire ten kids for the summer and send them out to work within the various city departments for 32 hours per week.  But there again, exactly what would that accomplish?  It would have, as you correctly pointed out, only provided “a job.”  We wanted this program to be more than that; it was designed to be both a worthwhile experience for these students and something the community could be proud of.  Every single Monday the group met in a classroom-type environment where we discussed topics such as workplace professionalism, resume and cover letter writing, leadership, and the fundamentals of municipal government.  These were not superficial and shallow discussions; we delved deep into each one of these subjects at the beginning of every week.  Guest speakers were an integral part of these discussions, the most notable of which was Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb.  The students then took this classroom experience and applied it to their respective jobs throughout the city.  So, this was more than just a job, it was a well-rounded, legitimate work experience that provided a source of value to their lives and knowledge they can utilize as they move forward into their professional careers.

For our study of leadership, each student was presented their own copy of a book that has been in my personal library at home for over a decade.  The New Art of the Leader by Bill Cohen turned out to be the perfect text for this course.  It is based on what the author coins as the “Combat Model of Leadership.”  This model is grounded in research derived from the input of numerous military officers both during and after their time in the military.  Even though its basis is steeped in military wisdom, the instructive principles transcend this limited group and are applicable to any situation the Youth Job Corps students may face in the future.  The eight principles of the Combat Model are: Maintain Absolute Integrity, Know Your Stuff, Declare Your Expectations, Show Uncommon Commitment, Expect Positive Results, Take Care of Your People, Put Duty Before Self, and Get Out In Front.

It would have been fruitless to challenge the students and teach them these elements of leadership if the program itself was not an embodiment of the code of conduct presented in the book.  One of the resulting goals was for the students to discover and identify how each one of these principles was incorporated into the program as we covered it in the text.  This method ended up being an effective tool to transform words from a black and white page into a practical application.  During each segment of the leadership study, I was very impressed with how the students were able to discern this concealed lesson.”

I queried about what they expected from the program.  “What did you expect in the beginning?  Did those expectations change as it went along?  What were your feelings about it at the end?”

“Through the lens of the Combat Model will be the best way to answer your question about the expectations of the program and how they changed over the course of the summer,” Orr stated.  “The third principle of the model is “Declare Your Expectations.”  Like I expressed when I spoke at the city council meeting, I had no idea what to expect out of the program when presented with the idea.  However, if I was to espouse the concept of declaring expectations, I had to set the bar somewhere, and I decided to set it high for the incoming students from the get-go.  This began in the interviews long before their first official day at work.  I explained then that their summer would not be easy nor would it be a walk in the park.  Instead of scaring these kids away from the program, they actually were excited to be a part of something bigger than themselves and even went home sharing the excitement with their parents!  They showed up to work motivated, eager to learn, and ready to serve their community.  Supervisors began bragging about the kids and their sense of dedication and enthusiasm.  One of the supervisors even told me the student working in his department was actually out-working his full-time city employees!  As more and more of these positive reports began to trickle back to me, the expectations indeed changed and moved yet higher than before.  Even though the level of expectancy was lofty from the opening whistle, through hard work the students exceeded every hope and anticipation that I had for them.  As the students kept meeting and exceeding the challenges before them, the result was a surge of confidence that propelled them through the summer to the conclusion of the program.”

When asked if they would do anything differently, Orr said, “The one thing I would do differently next year is the recruitment process.  The City posted the job as it does for other typical openings, and even placed an ad in the paper.  I also personally met with the principal at Enid High School twice, but the students inform me they did not find out about the job at school.  Other options will be explored so that we can search out the best possible talent for the program if it continues into the future.”

I asked several different departments at the City about their thoughts on the program and on all counts, they thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids.  Dan Ohnesorge, Director of Woodring Airport, stated, “I used the summer interns to help with projects that we had laid out for my seasonal employees.  Those included pressure washing a few hangars for painting, lots of mowing and fence repair.  They did get involved in helping put chalks under some of the aircraft and in parking a few inside hangars, but for the most part they worked as laborers.  Despite that, I think they enjoyed being out at the airport because of the activity out here and I enjoyed having them out here.  They certainly did help with our summer projects.  I would be happy to see it continue next year.”

Andrie Winters, Grant Resource Manager, said, “My experience with Enid Youth Job Corps was that the interns were incredibly motivated, and had a willingness to understand all the aspects of municipal service.  They were very open minded and exploratory with respect to learning not just each job but the various characteristics of good leaders.

I found the interns to be overachievers who worked hard no matter the task.  They seemed as interested in mentorship, office politics, and professionalism as they did job oriented tasks.  They shared their misconceptions about what they though city jobs were as opposed to what is actually done by city staff.  They garnered a better appreciation for community service and government.

I think especially because there aren’t very many jobs available in Enid for teens, this opportunity should be continued in the future because it allows interns to gain potentially vital experiences that may guide their career decisions.

The Enid Youth Job Corps opportunity is genuinely unique and a great platform for educational and professional success.  It helps ground youth in community service and allows them an opportunity to see their community from a completely different perspective.

I personally enjoyed the opportunity to explain to young ladies how some of my choices led me to where I am today and to allow them to ask me questions about college and my career path.”

Ailey Ore, who is currently spending a year interning with Teen Mania Ministries, is one of the students that participated in the program.  Ore stated, “I was excited about the program from the start.  In high school we focus more on federal and state government rather than municipal government.  This summer gave me a chance to broaden my horizons further than I thought possible.  The chance to work closely with adults who actually work in a professional setting is quite a rare opportunity for an 18 year-old.  Eric Benson’s dedication to this program and Jason Orr’s execution of the program made it a truly life changing summer.  It taught me that there is so much more involved in government aspects than most people realize.  Every minute detail counts when making a decision about what is best for the citizens.  I saw this summer that not everyone is always going to win, but leaders like Benson strive to make sure that peoples’ voices are heard.  I would absolutely recommend this program to other teens; in fact, I would recommend that other cities adopt this program because it truly benefits the youth.”

Regarding his thoughts on the final product, Benson said, “It was a great, no, outstanding process.  I am immensely proud of Jason.  He did all the work, all the mentoring, all the “leading”.  All I did was offer the support and a few cuss words.  Truthfully?  I was tremendously moved by those kids at the listening session.  If anyone is responsible for this program it started with their courageous words.”