Youth Connections provides guidance to your future

At 23, Victoria Estrada finally knows where she’s going in life.

It hasn’t always been that way. Victoria would have graduated from Immokalee High School in 2011 but could not pass the reading portion of the FCAT. She could have gone back to school for a whole year, but it would have been a hardship, living with her family, including her parents, younger brothers and a nephew. She tried Beacon, the on-line alternative school but, although it is good for many students, it just didn’t work for Victoria. She floundered for several years and finally got a job caring for animals, but that didn’t work out. Even so, she had found her calling. Victoria loves working with animals, making sure they’re cared for and providing companionship, and so has decided that’s what she wants to do.

Dannielle Brun, Victoria Estrada and Mayra Cardenas. (Patty Brant/Immokalee Bulletin)

Dannielle Brun, Victoria Estrada and Mayra Cardenas. (Patty Brant/Immokalee Bulletin)

Victoria is a perfect example of how the Youth Connections Program can make a difference in a young person’s life.

Youth Connections is a program funded by the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board and provided by Henkels & McCoy, Inc., Training Services Group. Over the more than 10 years the program has been in Southwest Florida the Youth Connections program, which partners with Salvation Army, Good Will, iTECH, Catholic Charities, St. Matthews House and many other civic and charitable groups has provided young people with the resources that will help them become successful. The Youth Connections program can be found at any of the 5 CareerSource Southwest Florida Centers throughout the region.

Regional Manager Dannielle Brun and Career Coach Mayra Cardenas for the Immokalee/LaBelle area are the faces of the program locally, which operate in the five County area of Hendry, Glades, Collier, Lee and Charlotte. In Immokalee you will find Mayra at the Southwest Florida Workforce Center,

Dannielle has been with the program for seven years. Dannielle said that Youth Connections has 350-400 participants in SWF Workforce Development Board yearly; 50-55 in Immokalee/LaBelle.

When Victoria was 21, she came to the Workforce Center for housing assistance, but she found a whole lot more.

“Life happens,” Dannielle said, and the Youth Connections Program helps young people get on track again.

The plan for Victoria is to continue preparations that will lead to her passing her last GED component at iTECH, the continue at Lorenzo Walker Technical College to become a vet tech. Victoria has been working hard, gaining work experience through the program at St. Matthew’s House Thrift Store, job shadowing and internship – all essential to getting and keeping a real job.

Mayra is a 2002 IHS graduate and has been a career coach for just eight months. She is helping Victoria through pre-GED testing to make sure she has the skills and confidence so she can pass the real test and get on with her life. Mayra won’t let Victoria take the actual GED test until she is sure she’s ready. Each GED section can be taken one at a time, and a student can take up to eight months to complete the entire test, if necessary.

Many times young people also need to learn life skills to really become a success. They need to learn about things like money management and credit through finance workshops etc. They need to learn the “soft” skills that can help them maintain a job. Youth Connections finds them the right sources for those needs as well.

Dannielle says of Career coaches like Mayra, “What they do is special.”

Mayra is the “hub” of the Youth Connection program – connecting the participants with all the individual programs, guiding them and making it all come together. She has developed the ability to connect all the necessary pieces of each individual’s life puzzle – to be a problem solver. A big part of Mayra’s job is to keep participants motivated when, as so often happens, they get discouraged when things get in the way of their plans.

Victoria says she is grateful to have supportive family and boyfriend – a good support system. But Mayra points out that not everyone has that. Part of her job is to help each participant build that system. She helps them do that by being a good listener and building a relationship with each of her clients. “My job is to find the best path for them to get to their goal,” she said. She works with probation officers, foster care and Department of Children and Families, social workers, teachers – filling the needs of each student individually. According to Dannielle, the program utilizes community resources to improve “the structure for youth.”

Mayra must keep them motivated by finding the training they need along with child care and other assistance, connecting them with mentors in social systems like the Guadalupe Center – and open the door to opportunities they never had.

Participants are also required to do community service leadership with agencies like Harry Chapin Food Bank to demonstrate the personal growth so important to true success.

Victoria now has her own place; she’s working and saving money. She’s on her way, although she will tell you that she’s not quite “there” yet. She is gaining traction and finally finding her way, thanks to Dannielle, Mayra and Youth Connections. Of Mayra she said, “She motivates me.” Mayra and other career coaches learn to establish the trust factor and maintain relationships with program participants. They respond to them as individuals.

Victoria is learning a lot that will make her life and her young son’s better. Perhaps one of the most important things she has learned, she said, is that “asking for help is okay.”

Youth Connections is located at 750 South 5th Street, Immokalee. You can call 239-658-3300 X6709.

Patty Brant, Publisher of the Immokalee Bulletin can be reached at pbrant@newszap.com

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