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For these kids, stimulus was a blessing

Ibrahim Warsame of Willmar, left, and Andy Elwood of Alexandria arrange produce Thursday on their table at Becker Market in downtown Willmar. The produce was grown by the young men and others working in a summer youth employment program funded by stimulus money from the federal government. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

Andy Elwood and Ibrahim Warsame showed off a table full of fresh vegetables at the Becker Market Thursday afternoon.

They were proud of the box of jalapeno peppers sitting on the table next to bright yellow squash and shiny purple eggplant. A bucket of kohlrabi was on the ground next to the table.

Fresh-picked that day were purple "magic" beans which would turn green when cooked.

Elwood, of Alexandria, and Warsame, of Willmar, each worked about 20 hours a week this summer at the Willmar Community Greenhouse, a project started by a group of Willmar high school students on the MinnWest Technology Campus last year.

The 10 young people who worked at the greenhouse during the summer were paid with federal economic stimulus money.

They were among hundreds of students and young adults around the state who had summer jobs funded by the stimulus funding approved by Congress last winter. More than 100 students had jobs in the Kandiyohi, Meeker and Renville county areas.

Many worked for area school districts; some others worked for local governments or non-profit organizations. One of the larger projects was a school-wide repainting and mural project throughout the halls of the Renville County West school building.

The stimulus youth program was so popular that Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services was unable to fill all the requests received when the program started, said Kate Zimmer, youth recovery act supervisor based in Willmar.

The agency had about $1.6 million in funding but received grant requests totaling about $4 million, Zimmer said. They found ways to reduce mileage or supervisor salary costs to fit in as many projects as they could.

The program was put together very quickly, with students going to work only a couple months after the funding was released, Zimmer said.

Most of the young workers would not have had summer jobs without the program, she said.

"The jobs that were usually kid jobs are now dislocated worker jobs," said Heidi Holm, youth employment specialist.

"Counties and cities really weren't hiring," Zimmer added.

Many students helped school districts with moving or cleaning -- "just things schools need to get done but don't have the personnel or funding to get them done," Holm said.

In return for the free labor, employers mentored the young people about proper work behavior, Holm said.

Young people who had never had a job before learned about coming to work on time and working a full shift, she said. They learned about dressing appropriately and working in a team. They also learned when it was appropriate, or not, to text on their cell phones.

"The supervisors in these programs have worked extremely hard," Holm said. "I haven't met one supervisor that regrets it."

Zimmer said the program had guidelines -- Student workers couldn't be used to replace people who had been laid off. Workers had to provide documentation, including a birth certificate, Social Security number and proof they were legal residents of the United States. They had to meet eligibility requirements having to do with income and other criteria.

The program paid for wages but not for supplies. Employers either provided supplies or sought donations.

"We got a lot of donations from area businesses," Holm said.

The students have used their pay in a variety of ways. Some are saving for college or cars or car repairs, some used the money to help pay family bills and others bought computers or video games.

The boys who worked at the greenhouse said they appreciated the work. While they might have found other jobs, "I'm grateful I got this one," Warsame said. "This was a cool opportunity."

It was nice to get paid and also earn credits for working at the greenhouse, Elwood said.

Both said they saved the money they earned for cars. Elwood said he'll also be paying rent with his earnings. "I'm using a little bit to get school supplies," Warsame added.

Melany Souther, a paraprofessional who worked with the greenhouse students, said the summer was a success. The project served its purpose "to educate people and nourish as well," she said.