In the spring of 2004, during a series of town hall meetings, City of Columbia First Ward council representative Almeta Crayton expressed concerns that the youth in her ward were often unemployed despite a willingness to work. So began the Youth Empowerment Zone.
In response to this outcry in the First Ward, a local non profit, Boone County Community Partnership contracted two Columbia residents, Lorenzo Lawson and Nathan Stephens, to serve as youth advocates and help youth ages 14-24 obtain employment. First Ward residents and BCCP chose Lawson and Stephens to lead the program because of their strong ties and commitment to the First Ward community. Both community activists built the program around ideas of empowerment and designed it to effectively serve those specifically at greatest risk and need. Most traditional service delivery systems are not successful with this hard to reach population. These youth tend to deal with the most difficult barriers and thereby are transient and distrustful of large systems. In building YEZ, staff had to be nontraditional in their approach and work outside of what is typically expected of a ‘program.’ They worked unconventional hours, sometimes visiting the homes of youth at 9 o’ clock at night to talk with parents or look for youth who were heading down the wrong path. YEZ staff members also make jobsite visits to act as an advocate for youth and a liaison between youth and their employers. During Youth Empowerment Zone’s first year in operation, 40 at risk youth were placed in gainful employment across Columbia. Because of their success in helping youth successfully transition to adulthood through employment BCCP accepted a contract to sponsor and implement the YEZ program.
Youth Empowerment Zone has grown to staff five people. Its mission is to proactively reach easily-neglected, at-risk, urban youth by connecting them to the ideas and activity of empowerment, and provide them with resources and networks that will help them transition successfully into adulthood. The organization continues to garner local and nationwide recognition for its efforts in helping youth succeed in work and life.