Diba Sultan, an intern through the Community Attention Youth Internship Program, works the counter at Les Fabriques on Thursday. Credit: Credit: Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress

While many teens see the summertime as a chance to relax, a program administered by the city of Charlottesville has placed 150 youths in intensive internships across the city, with positions ranging from elderly care to custodial services to government work.

The Community Attention Youth Internship Program, which runs its largest session during a six-week period over the summer, aims to provide Charlottesville teens with professional experience and prepare them for the demands of adulthood. Many participants come from low-income backgrounds.

“It can be difficult for teens to gain employment in this competitive market,” said Misty Graves, director of the program. “CAYIP allows youth to give back to their community, learn skills not always gained from the classroom, avoid trouble and earn money.”

The program fills a need amid an economic climate that is particularly tough on young job-searchers.

Charlottesville formed Community Attention in 1971 to provide foster care homes for at-risk youth. It has since developed to administer community-based programs for teens.

Now in its ninth year, CAYIP has grown from an initial cohort of 16 interns to a program with 150 interns and 85 job placement sites.

“The program really gives kids a boost,” said Carla Quenneville, owner of Les Fabriques fabric store and host to intern Diba Sultan, a 15-year-old Charlottesville High School student. “Young people have fresh ideas and bring energy to a workplace.”

“Rather than sit around and do nothing, this program provides us a way to gain experience and learn how to communicate in the workplace,” said Sultan, who dreams of designing her own fashion line. “And I’ve learned so many new things about fabric!”

Interns ages 14 to 21 commit 20 hours per week during the summer to the program. Nineteen of those hours are spent at their place of employment, which program administrators determine by matching interns’ stated interests with job descriptions provided by employers.

The last hour is spent at a weekly job-readiness class led by CAYIP counselors on topics such as communication in the workplace and resume building.

Representatives from the University of Virginia Community Credit Union host a workshop on financial planning as part of the program, and offer the interns the opportunity to open a bank account.

In addition, youth counselors meet weekly with both interns and supervisors to discuss challenges and the progress of the internships, opening up a line of communication that supervisors credit with maintaining a successful program.

“It’s a very strong support system all the way around,” said Marian Morris, who currently hosts four interns at the Martha Jefferson House, a multi-level retirement community.

Interns are paid an hourly stipend for their work, with maximum earnings totaling $600 by the end of the program. Deductions are made for infractions such as tardiness or inappropriate dress.

Site supervisors say the transition to the workplace can be rough for some, as many participants have never had a job before.

“Sometimes summers go smooth as silk, but other times there are challenges,” said Morris. “The biggest one is getting kids to put their cellphones away.”

Given the challenges, satisfaction rates among both interns and supervisors remain high. Ninety-five percent of the 2014 summer internships were completed successfully, and all of the supervisors surveyed said they would recommend the program to other businesses.

Employers often enjoy the mentorship role and the opportunity to engage with the community.

“We had an intern that returned to us on his own initiative during his spring break to work with our maintenance department,” Morris said. “It means a lot when they call and want to come back.”

CAYIP counselors say the program is especially valuable for building participants’ sense of self-efficacy.

“This job has a lot of triumphs,” said counselor Lillie McVey. “I am infinitely impressed to see how self-aware my interns are as they recognize their own challenges and how to handle them.”

As Community Attention personnel look to the future, they say they hope to expand the program so that every applicant is granted the opportunity to work. This year, they were forced to turn down more than 50 applicants due to resource constraints.

Although program staffers note anecdotal evidence that shows the youths getting officially hired after completing their internship, formalized data on hiring rates has not yet been compiled.

Ultimately, interns are eager to take advantage of the opportunity to gain access to the workforce, with 97 percent of those surveyed in 2014 saying they would recommend the program to other teens.

The growth of the program has been enabled by support from the City Council, which supplies the bulk of its funding. Additional funds come from organizations such as Gang Reduction through Active Community Engagement and local social services departments.

Participating employers pay nothing to host the interns.

“[The program] may be the most valuable experience these young people will have in their school years in terms of preparing them for a successful future in the workforce,” Councilor Dede Smith said.

Councilor Kristin Szakos agreed.

“It’s one of the best investments we can make in our young people’s future,” she said.