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In August 2020, MCAN awarded $10,000 grants to ten organizations in the ten days leading up to MCAN’s 10th birthday. These 10th Birthday Grants provided $100,000 in funding to community organizations across Michigan whose services aligned with MCAN’s mission of education equity for low-income students, first-generation college-going students, and students of color. As MCAN's 11th birthday approaches, last year's grantees are sharing how the funding has helped them serve their communities, as well as their organizations’ overall successes in the past year.

In this Q&A, Mollie Waller from Youth Solutions shares how its 10th Birthday Grant helped it adapt valuable youth programming to online and hybrid models.


What or communities does your organization serve, and how has the 10th Birthday Grant helped you meet the needs of this community?

Through our premier program, Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates (JMG), the 10th Birthday Grant helped support our mission to equip young people with the skills to overcome barriers and succeed in education, in employment, and in life. During the 2020/2021 program year, Youth Solutions served 3,510 youth in 330 cities, villages, and towns throughout the state of Michigan. Throughout the year, we provide the youth a sense of the importance of education, experiences that prepare them for a job or career, and the necessary tools to realize their potential.

Through college access, MCAN is dedicated to promoting equity in our state. We work to ensure that every student in Michigan has the opportunity to attend college — especially low-income students, first-generation college-going students and students of color. In what ways does MCAN's work align with the mission of your organization?

Youth served through the JMG program are historically underrepresented. In the 2020/2021 school year, 84 percent of our youth (2,868) had the potential to be first-generation college students, 82 percent (2,785) were economically disadvantaged, and 59 percent (2,071) were people of color. Our youth had 5.9 average barriers to education completion and employment. Our outreach strategies and priorities have always been focused on the historically disenfranchised and will continue long past this school year.

By serving low-income youth, youth of color, and potential first-generation college-going students, we are able to provide youth the opportunity to realize future possibilities they might not otherwise have exposure to. By providing young people with a comprehensive program covering postsecondary opportunities and career pathways, they begin to see the hope and freedom that further education brings. In addition, this program helps our youth develop skills to find information needed to make educated decisions on various college and career pathways. By doing so, they can chart their own course toward postsecondary education and career success, giving youth a realistic path toward achieving their life goals. These efforts support MCAN’s mission to increase the percentage of Michigan residents with degrees or postsecondary certificates to 60% by 2030 and its focus on low-income youth, youth of color, and first-generation college students.

What has been your organization's greatest success since receiving the 10th Birthday Grant?

As we began the 2020/2021 school year, Youth Solutions responded to the continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by making sure our services were designed for in-person, virtual, and hybrid delivery models. Throughout the academic year, we continued to think creatively to maintain youth engagement. With this laser focus, we served more young people this past year than ever before in our history, reaching 3,510 youth.

What were some of the biggest challenges you experienced?

With the COVID-19 pandemic creating new obstacles, JMG youth were faced with critical new barriers to completing school and getting a job, including financial hardships, academic challenges, emotional struggles, and the loss of in-person social networks that foster a sense of belonging. Our JMG specialists rose to this new challenge by delivering the program virtually and helping their youth overcome these new barriers and stay focused to pursue their goals. A critical component of JMG’s programming is employer and postsecondary engagement, including in-person classroom visits from leaders in higher education and various industries, company or campus tours, industry-led hands-on activities, and internships or job shadows. As a result of the pandemic, the Youth Solutions team and specialists found creative alternatives to deliver these services through statewide virtual events.

What will be the lasting impacts of the 10th Birthday Grant? For instance, what programs and initiatives will continue? Did new partnerships emerge?

Through this year of pandemic challenges never before experienced, we exceeded our goals in helping Michigan’s young people stay connected or reconnect to earn their high school diploma and pursue further education and/or employment. JMG achieved a 94 percent graduation rate, and 62 percent of those youth were also placed into employment. In addition, 49 percent were enrolled in postsecondary education or completed a postsecondary credential. This is the ninth year in a row that JMG has achieved a 90 percent or higher graduation rate.

In support of these outcomes, this program year we launched our Employer Engagement Framework (EEF) virtually to expose youth to different career and postsecondary education opportunities. The EEF is a tiered approach that provides participants with the opportunity to explore career pathways, learn about different industries, and gain work experience. The ultimate goal is for each JMG participant to hone the educational and/or skill-building competencies deemed critical by employer partners so they achieve success in the career pathway of their choice. Virtual opportunities were provided throughout the program year to ensure all youth have access to this framework as they chart their future pathway. Through this effort, Youth Solutions was able to create new partnerships and expose youth to numerous postsecondary and employer opportunities, including Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Saginaw Valley State University, University of Michigan, Alma College, Lake Michigan College, Steelcase, Freedom Finishing, Michigan State Police, Consumers Energy, Adecco, Spectrum Health, LAZ Parking, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, TCF Bank, DTE, Lyons Industries, 1st Source Bank, Midwest Energy Communications, and Ausco Products.

Through our deepening partnership with MCAN, Ryan Fewins-Bliss co-moderated the third part of a three-part series on the benefits of beginning at a community college before transferring to a university. This part featured a panel discussion with professionals offering youth a realistic look at what a community college to four-year university future could look like. We look forward to continuing and growing our partnership with MCAN.

After a year of many challenges and successes, we plan to continue all these activities and deepen these partnerships moving forward.