Oneida Indian Nation’s Youth Work Learn Program has been a fixture of summer throughout the Nation for more than two decades
This summer marked the 27th year of the Oneida Indian Nation’s Youth Work Learn (YWL) Program. The six-week program gives Oneida and other American Indian youth an opportunity to get a jump on the competition by earning real-life work experience at various Oneida Nation enterprise and government program locations.
Hours worked are dependent upon age, with every participant holding responsibilities associated with an actual job. Timeliness, ability to take directions, attendance and performance are among the many real-world skills worked on and developed in the program.
Randy Phillips has overseen the program since its inception. A former educator himself, he sees a lot of value in a unique program like YWL.
“Because the program has been so successful for so long, children have a good understanding of the program goals and expectations,” Randy said. “They often come quite prepared and ready to work.”
When the program began, there were four crews of 12 youth each. All crews worked 40 hours a week on various projects like landscaping, building sheds and gazeebos as well as office and golf course work. Randy says they’ve streamlined the jobs to become more like mentorship positions with qualified Nation employees. The youngest crew still does landscaping and more labor intense projects.
More generations have been able to take advantage of Youth Work Learn because of its continued success. Randy believes the program develops key life skills that will be useful in any field.
“It is always our hope that the youth develop good work habits as a result of their time with us,” he said. “Any time we can prepare a young person for the future job market is a plus for us.”
American Indian youth from 16-19 years old received individual assignments to Nation job sites including: SavOn and Maple Leaf Market, Car Care, the Turning Stone golf department, Mariner’s Landing and Snug Harbor marinas, the Nation library, education department and the Early Learning Center. Participants in this group worked up to 40 hours per week.
For the past two years, Sadie Schenandoah Stanford (Wolf Clan) had spent her YWL hours assisting Kathi Sochia in the Oneida Nation Library at the Children & Elders Center. This year, the graduate of Holy Cross Academy in Oneida hoped for a spot with the Oneida Nation Police, but when one was not available she took a position at the SavOn near Dream Catcher Plaza in Oneida. While the retail setting is vastly different from the low-key atmosphere at the C & E Center, Sadie enjoyed her time at SavOn. So much so, she hopes it continues.
“The staff has been really great to work with and there are a lot of nice customers, I like it so much I applied for a position after my time with the Youth program is over,” she said. Sadie is taking a gap year before pursuing her college career. Many students are choosing the gap option to gain valuable work experience and earn money as they sharpen their educational focus. Sadie’s interests are drawn to surgical technology, so while she searches for the right program to fit her career goals she is happy to work at SavOn.
Sadie kept busy helping customers at the register, assisting in the deli and cleaning and stocking as directed. She likes helping people and says her experiences over the years in the program have been well worth it. “There are a lot of options, find something in the program you like and try it,” she offered as word of encouragement to interested Nation youth.
The Ray Elm Children & Elders Center remained a popular destination for participants of the program. Brandi Ross, 19, worked with children at the Early Learning Center for the fourth straight year, still enjoying every experience. Brandi, studying early childhood education at Onondaga Community College, served as a teacher’s assistant at the ELC, working mostly with the Pre-K block of kids.
“They teach me to have fun, not to take life so seriously,” said Brandi while the kids kept her busy during outdoor play time. She began her experience in Youth Work Learn several years ago with the Crew.
Completing her second year at the ELC was Alaina Beane, 17, who continued to enjoy working with the children in the various rooms she was assigned. She assisted teachers by reinforcing the skills and behaviors the kids had learned, and keeping track of the ever-moving little ones. Alaina is a graduate of Stockbridge Valley High School and looks forward to the start of classes at SUNY Canton where she will major in applied physiology.
New to the program were cousins Natalie Halbritter-Eells and Dylan Halbritter.
Natalie, 16, assisted Sarah Carrillo with the Nation’s Scholarship Program, gaining valuable experience with every-day duties such as filing and database maintenance. She liked the atmosphere at the C & E Center where staff and community members provided a warm welcome. She enjoyed the experience and admitted it was better than she thought it might be.
“We don’t get treated like kids, we get real responsibilities and are held accountable,” she said. A student at Manlius Pebble Hill, Natalie says she definitely will be back for Youth Work Learn next year and may want to try for a spot at the ELC.
Dylan, 15, assisted in the Nation Library and in the reception area. Keeping track of the library’s catalogued inventory, filing, cleaning and helping with miscellaneous duties kept her days busy. Her very first real-work experience is one she enjoyed tremendously and she too was pleasantly surprised at the work load. Dylan may want to try working with the children in the ELC next year and is already setting her sights on the future, hoping to attend Syracuse University.
Kadin Martin, 15, worked at Mariner’s Landing Marina in Sylvan Beach this year after completing the Crew program last year. He enjoyed his first year of work experience, especially being on the water all summer.
“I like it,” he said during a break. “I gas up all of the boats that come through, and sometimes help dock them.” He wants to use his experience this year to take to a different work location next year to make sure he tries a little bit of everything the Nation has to offer.
Thomas Lynch, 15, worked at the Nation’s Car Care center, which is next to the SavOn convenience store on Patrick Road. Also a member of the Crew last year, Tom really enjoyed getting to work with cars in his first year on the job. He detailed interiors, washed cars and assisted mechanics when he could.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “I will definitely do it again next year and I’d like to stay here.”
Dylan Curtis, 17, returned for a second year to the golf department at Turning Stone. The outdoor enthusiast loves working at the Shenendoah golf course. Whether prepping carts, shuttling players back and forth or clearing the driving range, Dylan likes to stay active and feels right at home with his responsibilities. When he returned to the program this summer, the golf department staff gave him a warm welcome.
“They acted like I never left and were excited to see me,” he said. He was able to pick right up where he was last year and got right to work. He even was able to provide guidance to newbie Jaden Confer (Turtle Clan), 17, who joined Dylan at Shenendoah. Dylan credits Shenendoah head golf pro Jeff Kleinman, and all of the staff for providing a terrific working atmosphere. “There are a lot of really good people to work with here.”
Dylan is a student at Stockbridge Valley High School and has his sights set on attending Universal Technical Institute to become a diesel technician. He says his step-mom, Kari Beane (Turtle Clan), encouraged him to give the YWL program a try, telling him it was a good opportunity to gain valuable experience and see what it is like to have a job. She would know. Kari participated in the program herself and then later returned as a crew supervisor in 2007.
Jaden was happy to be outside this summer and enjoyed his time with the golf department as well. He mainly assisted with washing carts and working the bag drop area to prepare guests for their round.
“It’s a great job,” Jaden said during his last week. “The people here are really nice and welcoming. I look forward to coming back next summer.”
Other youth given work assignments were Trevir Relyea (Wolf Clan), who spent time at the Nation’s newest convenience store, Maple Leaf Market, in Sherrill, John Wise, who worked at SavOn on Lenox Ave in Oneida and Casey Stepian (Turtle Clan), who returned to Snug Harbour Marina for a second year.
A younger work crew consisted of 13-year-old enrolled Oneida Members and 14-15 year old American Indian youth only. They put in 20 hours per week and were assigned special cultural assignments throughout the summer.
Participants this year included: Lisa Powless (Wolf Clan), Kailee Cook (Wolf Clan), Elsie Cook (Wolf Clan), Lydia Aregano (Turtle Clan), Franklin Williams, Riley Halbritter-Eells, Naomie Pawlikowski, Diane Morris and McKenna Cousineau (Turtle Clan).
This summer the group visited Fort Stanwix to tour the grounds with Ron Patterson (Wolf Clan), the manager of the Oneida Heritage Center, and walked around the historic Oriskany Battlefield site where Oneidas aided the colonists to protect the fort and much of the trade of the northeast during the Revolutionary War. They also toured the Oneida Heritage Center with Ron to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their cultural roots and history.
“I want you guys to really know the history of our people,” Ron said to the kids at the Oriskany site. “This battle changed the course of our future and the future of Indian Country.”
In between cultural activities, the kids weeded around the Language Department building and the Rec Center, and helped clear out water chestnuts, an invasive species in Oneida Lake, at Marion Manor marina. About midway through the summer, the Crew also hosted a picnic at Nichols Pond, a former Oneida village, with children from the Early Learning Center. They made lunches for the kids and created a scavenger hunt activity, with Ron serving as a guide to answer any questions.
A couple days a week, the group visited Oneida Heritage’s Warrior Archery indoor range to work on and develop archery skills. They also practiced tennis at Turning Stone’s Golf Dome.
Toward the end of the summer, the Crew was able to visit Colgate University to prepare for the annual archaeological dig. The kids were able to determine why certain artifacts are chosen to be preserved by reviewing the collections at the John Longyear Museum of Anthropology housed on Colgate’s campus. The museum’s curator, along with three graduates of the university, brought out several items from all over the world. Thinking critically about what they’d like to see in their own museum, the entire group connected themes from several of the items they thought were interesting and told a story.
The dig was a two-day adventure for the kids. They were joined by Jesse Bergevin, a historical resource specialist for the Oneida Nation who’s assisted former Crew members with digs in years past. The kids found several pieces of pottery, clay and chert – a glassy material that was easy to shape for tools. They sifted through pounds and pounds of dirt using screens to uncover most of the artifacts, but they also found a fossilized shell that Jesse said could be dated back to the Ice Age.
The annual dig has been a popular activity for the Crew to close out each summer. With a little hard work, every Crew member can find remnants of their ancestors’ ways of life in the soil. The location where the kids have dug the past several years is a known former Oneida village, which connects the kids directly to the history of the area.
YWL has ushered hundreds of 13- to 20-year-olds through its ranks over the years, hoping to instill them with good work ethics and the foundation for a solid career path. The program’s continued success is indicative of a strong generation of American Indian youth leaders.