Willie Johnson of Fairfield is a foster child and Armijo High student works at Yippie Yogurt. The foundation that runs the yogu
Willie Johnson of Fairfield is a foster child and Armijo High student works at Yippie Yogurt. The foundation that runs the yogurt shop is a 2013 nominee for the Mary Lou Wilson Giving Tree. (Joel Rosenbaum/JRosenbaum@TheReporter.com)
William Johnson, 17, is a junior at Armijo High in Fairfield, but, based on his personal history, some of his classes have clearly been held in the school of hard knocks.

He is a foster child who lives with his grandmother in Fairfield. A student interested in history and aviation, he has a 3.1 GPA and is a member of the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC).

During an interview at Yippie Yogurt store in Fairfield, where he works in a job-training program for at-risk teens and young adults, he spoke frankly about his childhood: his mother addicted to narcotics and unable to care for him; a father who left when he was about 10 and never returned, eventually divorcing his mother.

But when Johnson first volunteered at the West Texas Street store and later was accepted into the training program, operated by the nonprofit Yippie Foundation, he gained hope for a brighter future.

The program, founded by Sherilyn Henry of Fairfield, includes an educational component in addition to the hands-on experience of working in the store, helping customers, operating the cash register and cleaning up. Among other things, the job teaches "soft skills" that employers are clamoring for: showing up on time, calling in sick, getting along with co-workers.

During the job training, program members also earn CPR and first-aid certifications and a food handler's license from the state of California - resume-builders that likely will put students in a good position when competing against other applicants for future jobs, said Henry, a retired minister.


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At first, Johnson, friendly and self-described as "outgoing and hyper," was impressed with what Henry and her board of directors were trying to do.

"They wanted to give youths a job," he said, adding that employment for young people in 2013 is hard to come by, as the economy remains uncertain and the jobless rate, stubbornly high. "It's really tough out there. Yippie Yogurt gets you in the front door. I'm really thankful for Ms. Sherilyn. Without her, there wouldn't be a program."

Henry said her program provides members "with some hope. They get hope that there's a place that is a start for a family-sustaining wage. They can make money and believe in themselves."

She requires program participants such as Johnson, whose six-month internship ends in December, to stay in school (high school or college) or pursue their General Education Development (GED) diploma. To date, several dozen youths have graduated or are in the program.

"I think education is the way to get them out of poverty," said Henry. "My heart is in helping youth, to have them have skills to be good citizens, that they matter and can make a difference in the world."

As leader of a nonprofit, Henry depends, in part, on the generosity of donors. The Reporter's Mary Lou Wilson Memorial Giving Tree is seeking to raise $1,500 for five Have a Heart sponsorships, which will help cover expenses (such as CPR and first-aid training, food handler's license, bus passes and a hot dinner once a week while members are in their classes) for young people during their 11-month job-training program at the Yippie Yogurt store.

Follow Staff Writer Richard Bammer at RBammer@TheReporter.com