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Youth workforce program helped Jacksonville teen reach her dreams

March 9, 2020

Shayla Edwards


Almost four years ago, Shayla was struggling. A high-school sophomore at the time, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. Her social anxiety alienated her from her peers. She also was trying her best to cope with bouts of depression.

“I was just floating,” she said. “I was invisible. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life, where I wanted to go. I wasn’t shy, but I was stand-offish. I went through a stage of depression.”

She needed a change.

One day that year, in a conversation with her guidance counselor, Shayla was introduced to the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership. Founded in 2017 by the City of Jacksonville in partnership with United Way of Northeast Florida and other community partners, the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership aims to “build the talent pipeline for our local economy by connecting young adults with education and employment career pathways.”

Because Shayla was part of Ribault High School’s early college program, which helps connect students to jobs to help pay for college, Shayla qualified.

“I figured, why not?” she said. “I’d never had a job before.”

That summer, she served as a paid intern at CareerSource. This first job experience — as well as the summer internships the next two summers — changed Shayla’s life.

“My life was kind of difficult before I found the internship,” she said. “I didn’t know how to speak to people or communicate with people. Now I know how to have a conversation with people. Now I know the correct terms to use and now I’m not nervous and I don’t start shaking when I am speaking to somebody.”

She said the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership helped build self-confidence and how to act in a professional world.

“I’ve walked in circles I never thought I could walk in before,” she said. “It’s exciting, and it helps you.”

She also made friends, and her supervisors built that confidence in her. She said she is no longer depressed, but still struggles with her mental health.

“It’s a climb that I have to climb every day,” she said. “I am climbing this big mountain, but now I can see the top. I feel that I am somebody, I do have a purpose in life. That’s what the program did for me.”

Shayla said she is so grateful because not only is she now more confident in her ability, she also has a list of five jobs on her resume.

“Being a black woman, there’s not really many opportunities,” Shayla said. “So the fact that people believe in us and they want to invest in us and they see what we can do in the future, it’s amazing, and I think it’s a beautiful thing, and I think that’s how the whole world should be.”

Following additional internships at The Florida Ballet and with Clara White Mission’s administrative team, Shayla now attends Tallahassee Community College, where she will graduate this summer with an AA in international business and marketing. She plans to attend Florida State University in the fall.

“I applied to NYU — didn’t get accepted — but just that the job motivated me to do something that was outside of my box and that I never even thought that I could dream of or go somewhere,” she said, “it was very exciting.”

Shayla is one of hundreds of teens who have now been connected to workforce development opportunities through the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership, which was designed, administered and refined by United Way of Northeast Florida and the City of Jacksonville in its inaugural year. Other partners included Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville and CareerSource.

To learn more about United Way of Northeast Florida, the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership and other local workforce development initiatives, please reach out to United Way’s community impact manager, Liz Lufrano. To make a gift to support United Way and similar workforce initiatives, please visit unitedwaynefl.org/give.

“That fact that it’s the community investing back into the community,” Shayla said, “it excites me, and it makes me feel proud.”