Last month, 17 emancipated foster youth completed a unique Alameda County-sponsored internship program that provided them with paid summer jobs and access to workplace experiences, professional networks and greater feelings of self-confidence that could help them build bright, productive futures.
The program not only offered hope to some young workers, it set a positive example of government partnering with community nonprofits to carve out exciting new ways to meet its mission and reduce the burden on the overloaded public safety net.
The New Beginnings Summer Fellowship program provided 20 hours of weekly employment to fellows aged 18 to 24. Each was paid $12 an hour. Participants, in turn, boosted the county workforce in no small way by providing energetic extra hands on deck to agencies whose resources have been eroded by budget cuts that have walloped public services in recent years.
Fellows also were provided with workshops and enrichment sessions to help them visualize professional goals, strengthen leadership skills and broaden their understanding of possibilities within their reach for career advancement.
"There are a lot of tricks about being in the workplace that you can learn only if you're in it,'' said Virgil Tooks, 20, who spent his fellowship working with the Alameda County Social Services Agency in Oakland.
Virgil spent most of his childhood living in foster homes across the East Bay. Now he is a student at Laney College in Oakland with his eyes clearly set on a career as a social worker.
So far, two of this summer's fellows have secured permanent jobs with Alameda County. Virgil Tooks says he would be interested in returning to Social Services after he completes his education.
Alameda County developed the fellowship program with the Oakland nonprofit Beyond Emancipation, whose primary purpose is to help former foster youth transition to adulthood. This means helping them overcome unique difficulties that contribute to higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, substance abuse and dependence on public assistance for adults with a history in foster care.
With the county's safety net services frayed badly by the economic downturn -- and a resulting loss of revenues coupled with growing demand for public assistance -- it makes great sense to help these young workers find the path to productive independence.
Let's not forget that the county benefits, too. Local government is continually pressed to keep up with modern day challenges -- and to develop a new generation of leaders who understand them. It's hard to argue with someone like Virgil Tooks when he says he interfaced with the child welfare system throughout his youth, developed strong ideas about how to improve the system and is passionate about finding a career that allows him to act on those ideas.
The New Beginnings fellows not only got valuable work experience while injecting extra energy into our workforce this summer, but many of us in Alameda County government feel we have established bonds with a new generation of leaders who can help keep government relevant and responsive to the community it serves.
Susan S. Muranishi is Alameda County's administrator.