New Orleans program preps youths with business skills

On an open grassy lot in central city, 20-year-old Ron Laugard received a standing ovation for his candid speech at the opening of Youth Empowerment Projects’ latest program, the Trafigura Work and Learn Center.

As one of the eight participants in the program, Laugard was nominated by his peers and teachers to talk at the grand opening ceremony recently.

It was a moment Laugard never imagined.

“When I was 18 I dropped out of high school. I was always told I wouldn’t amount to anything,” Laugard said. “In the beginning, I didn’t think I would have made it this far because of what I was told and the lifestyle I was living.”

Melissa Sawyer, co-founder and executive director of YEP, partnered with the Switzerland-based Trafigura Foundation, to bring the second Trafigura Work and Learn Center in the United States to New Orleans.

The Trafigura Work and Learn Center is a 12-week employment preparedness program for students 16 to 24 that focuses on hard and soft skills in a business setting, a bike repair shop.

Darrin McCall, director for Trafigura Work and Learn Center in New Orleans, is one of the two teachers who work with the young people in developing the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace.

“The soft skills they learn are job readiness and life skills; we talk about emotional intelligence, goal setting, team work, basic etiquette, workplace communication, how to write a résumé, dress for an interview, fill out a job application, and financial literacy,” McCall said. “In the back of the center is the bike repair and bike refurbishment, and that is the hard skills.”

The eight participants were referred into the work and learn center via other YEP programs, mainly New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth (NOPLAY) which is YEP’s adult education program.

“The path I was on before NOPLAY and work and learn center, would have had me either in jail or in the grave,” Laugard said. “I have gotten myself together. I am trying to become the person I was always told I wasn’t going to be.”

Sawyer explains that the work and learn center provides an environment that the students can really get involved in while also having something tangible at the end of it, that is useful and adds value.

“The kids love it, they get their hands in, they are already fixing young kids’ bikes that they can give to young brothers or sisters, and they are working on their own bicycles which they will be able to keep at the end, which is great for a lot of young people — they can get around with bikes because they don’t have money for a car,” Sawyer said.

YEP’s goal is to keep adding cohorts and new businesses to the work and learn center. With a woodworking shop already planned for the fall, they are also looking to incorporate coed and young womens’ classes.

For now though, a bike repair shop seems to be the perfect fit for the program.

“There is no bike repair or bike sales shop in this part of the city, so hopefully we will grow to do bike repairs for people in the community. For now, we are working on our curriculum, on the soft and hard skills that they need to learn,” McCall said.

Already five weeks into the 12-week program, the participants are well on track to make the next step, be it in further education or the workplace.

“Some of the kids will hopefully be in the position where they are ready with the hard and soft skills and the motivation to step into the workplace, to get jobs and keep jobs, some of the others are in the process of getting a GED and post secondary education,” McCall said.

As the afternoon heated up on the grassy lot next to the Trafigura Work and Learn Center, Laugard stood up with YEP and community leaders — a bike chain that represented a ribbon was held up and cut with a pair of bolt cutters.

“Programs like YEP, NPOLAY and Trafigura Work and Learn Center keep our minds occupied, off the streets and out of trouble,” Laugard said.

“This is a great opportunity to learn from some of the great people who teach us.”