Sarah Kinney, a 17-year-old Waterville High School junior, had several ideas of what she wanted to do after school.

Growing up with a mother and a sister who are mentally disabled and have epilepsy, Kinney knew that she wanted to help others, but wasn’t sure where or how to start.

That’s when she heard about Youth Empowerment Through Employment from her school guidance counselor.

“I guess she thought I was a good fit because I have a lot of plans for after high school,” Kinney said.

Last spring and summer, Kinney was one of 20 Waterville and Winslow high school students who participated in YETE, which has helped teenagers with disadvantages and struggles at home become well-rounded, career-focused students ready to achieve their goals after high school.

The five-year-old program, developed by Youth Matter, a nonprofit organization in Waterville aimed at improving the lives of area children through community collaboration and development, teaches students who have faced challenging obstacles important life skills they may not have been taught at home.

The 28-week program is split into two parts. For 18 weeks, the students have weekly two-hour meetings after school, followed by 10 weeks of working experience with an area business that lines up with the student’s interest. Businesses that participated this year include the Alfond Youth Center, Balfour Farm, Grand Central Cafe, Inland Hospital and Thomas College. During the work experience, the group will still meet once a week and talk about anything exciting or problematic that happened at work, and how to deal with those situations.

The program solicits requests from high school teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses and other after-school programs to identify students who may benefit from the program.

“I have scouts throughout the schools,” said Ryan Kneeland, YETE coordinator. Students may also apply.

Of the 20 students selected each year, about 75 percent complete the program.

“We’re going after the population we need to,” Kneeland said. “If we have 20 out of 20 make it every year, we’re taking it easy. This way we’re serving kids who really need it.”

During the two-hour after school sessions, the students are taught interview etiquette, resume writing, communication skills and how to responsibly handle money.

“The end goal is to give kids the opportunity to experience work situations and build up their strengths so they can be employable in the future,” said Wendi Richards, a director at Youth Matter. “A lot of times these kids have challenges that prevent them from learning those skills.”

‘We take before and after pictures’

Juggling the idea of becoming a certified nursing assistant or working as a special education teacher, Kinney said participating in YETE helped bring her future into focus.

“I found out what I wanted to do and it wasn’t a blurry line on how to do it anymore,” she said, adding that she wants to become a special education teacher. “Now I’m able to add more to my resume and make myself look good for employers.”

Before YETE, even starting a resume would have been difficult for Kinney and others in the program.

“A lot of the kids when they come in don’t know how to dress professionally, don’t know how to do resumes or act in interviews,” Richards said.

Richards said the change in the students is so drastic that they document it.

“We take before and after pictures,” she said.

During the first part of the program, students fill out questionnaires that will help them identify their strengths and also help them find a career path. About a dozen local businesses send a representative for mock interviews and to answer any questions the students have about potential careers. From there, the program works to identify local jobs that the students would find engaging based on their interests.

“It’s driven by aptitude and what they want to do,” Kneeland said. “We’re trying to match the right kids with the right mentors.”

For that 18-week period, the students also start to learn about responsible financial practices. One way the program seeks to keep its students engaged is to pay them for their time in class.

“That’s often their first check in their entire lives,” Kneeland said, adding that the checks are about $30 every two weeks. “So we have to teach them how to cash that check and set up a bank account.”

“They don’t know the difference between needs and wants at the beginning,” said Steve Soule, director for the South End Teen Center in Waterville, which partners with YETE. “We want them to open an account so they don’t need to pay a fee to cash their checks.”

Matt Anderson, a 17-year-old senior at Waterville High School, used the opportunity YETE provided for him to open up his first bank account. Anderson, who is interested in graphic design, worked with Waterville Main Street downtown development program, helped with the city’s downtown Harvestfest and sat in on the meetings planning the annual holiday Kringleville event.

Anderson also didn’t have a typical upbringing. Adopted, Anderson has lived the majority of his life with his two adopted older brothers and adopted older sister, and he keeps in touch with his three biological brothers. He found out about YETE through the school nurse, who thought it would be a good summer activity for him.

Although Anderson is still unsure of what he wants to do for a career, he said the program gave him the opportunity to learn more about what’s beyond high school.

“It was a learning experience for me and it broadened my ideas of what careers may be out there,” he said. “It’s helped with that basic interaction with other people. It taught me respect and responsibility.”

With that responsibility, Anderson opened up a bank account, with intent on saving his money for the future.

“With it in a bank account, it seems a little more important,” he said. “It makes you look toward the future more.”

‘Their smiles are brighter’

Kinney ended up working at the YMCA summer program, working with toddlers. The hands-on work, Kinney said, proved to be invaluable experience.

“You learn what they can and cannot do, so I had to teach them to share because they don’t know how yet,” Kinney said. “It was a good way for me to get into teaching in the future because I have some experience now.”

After high school, Kinney is hoping to attend the University of Maine at Farmington and get a teaching degree, using her new abilities from YETE and her experiences at home to achieve her goal.

“My mom was able to raise me and she still teaches me life lessons and is there for me when I have a bad day,” Kinney said. “She’s still smart. I want other people to know that.”

At the end of the program, there’s a graduation celebrating the advancement the students made over the summer. It’s here when the “after” picture is taken, and the difference is tangible.

“At the beginning you’ll have kids with hoods pulled over their head or they don’t want to make eye contact,” Richards said. “At the end everyone knows how to present themselves. They’re proud of themselves.”

Kneeland agreed with the change in appearance.

“The smiles are brighter,” he said.

Once the program ends, that doesn’t mean the students are on their own. Kneeland is working setting up an alumni network, while the members of the graduating class from this summer keep in touch.

“The whole YETE program is real helpful with finding a college,” Anderson said. “I’m still in touch with them.”

Kinney has stayed in touch with the program as well, accompanying Kneeland to Orono Middle School on Thursday to speak with kids about substance abuse. It’s this type of outreach that Kinney wasn’t sure she could do a year ago.

“I wouldn’t be as outspoken as I am now without this program,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m prepared to start a career in the future.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239[email protected]Twitter: @jessescardina