"It was a wonderful program, a real effective use of stimulus money to give young adults an opportunity to learn job skills, in addition to just showing up on time to do a job and feeling good about it. Also, a lot of credit goes to our staff who worked with these children."
Offering a chance
The seven weeks' of employment originally envisioned ended recently for most of the youths.
In Washington County, the 144 youths hired for the summer included 88 who now have returned to middle or high school. Their jobs have ended.
So, too, for some of the other 56, all of whom "were out-of-school youth, meaning they dropped out or they had graduated and were still unable to find a job," Thomas said.
The consortium wants to help them achieve more.
"We're really pushing them to develop skills, skills that will help them be successful in life," Thomas said.
So the consortium dangled some opportunities, along with a sweetener.
The sweetener is to use what money is left in the original stimulus grant to keep some of the youths working through September.
"What we're saying to kids is, the longest anyone is going to work is Sept. 30," Thomas said. "Our preference is to use the dollars for part-time employment for kids going to school."
The opportunities, for a high school dropout, include working through the consortium to earn a GED (General Equivalency Diploma).
For these and other youths, the opportunities include using the agency's expertise and, sometimes, funding, to enroll at the Barr Construction Institute in Hagerstown or at Hagerstown Community College.
"So we think this is a chance for kids to get reconnected and do things that we think are going to be useful to them," Thomas said. "And, so far, out of those 56, it looks like we are going to have approximately 30 or more who are going to go back to school that did not plan to go back to school until this opportunity presented itself.
"We've got some kids that are pretty excited about the opportunity."
Trying to make it work
If there is a problem with this approach, it is that Thomas isn't certain he has enough money left.
In March, the Labor Department gave the consortium two years to spend the $661,533 grant to help youths.
But Thomas' agency, seeing the need is so great, has taken a much more intensive approach.
"We're going real hard into spending this money as aggressively as possible," he said. "Here's an example of economic stimulus money putting money into circulation to those people that need money more than anybody else."
How much money will be needed for the extended jobs isn't certain because that will depend on such factors as when some youths leave for training or schooling, and whether any will skip some workdays, for instance.
"As we often say, it's like building an airplane in flight -- tinkering, doing all you need to keep it in the air," Thomas said.
But he is determined to do just that, even by using some other funding to help with parts of this program.
"We don't want kids to feel like we tricked them to go back to school, so we're going to make it work, one way or the other," Thomas said.
If there is no way except to reduce the number of youths working, those cut are "going to be those kids that are not going back to school, that are not going to do anything to further their skills," he said.
Beyond this fall, there still is the question of money for such a push to continue here next year.
But Thomas makes no apologies for pushing so hard this year.
"It certainly reflects our attitude, which is 'let's get as much done as possible in Year One, with the hope the program will be successful, that there is a chance we will get additional money in Year Two,'" he said.
Is another grant likely?
"I don't know," he said. "... We certainly let the Department of Labor know all the good we were doing. They came and visited ... a number of our work sites."
Leading this summer's visit was Linda Avila, who represented the department's regional office in Philadelphia.
Avila couldn't be reached for comment on whether additional money can be expected for next year.
Leni Uddyback-Fortson, regional director of the department's Office of Public Affairs, said a final report on Avila's visit wouldn't be completed for at least 30 days.
Asked whether more money might be coming next year for such programs here, Uddyback-Fortson said she doesn't know.