AUGUSTA — Victoria Nelder entered her senior year at Gardiner Area High School lacking a vision for her life beyond her graduation in June. That makes her like thousands of other high school students who will graduate in the next few weeks.

But after a year working with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, Nelder said the future is much more certain and bright.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grow up,” said Nelder, one of about 500 high school juniors and seniors from around the state who gathered for Wednesday’s 23rd Annual Career Development Conference at the Augusta Civic Center. “I had no plan.”

Helping students make plans for their future is at the core of JMG’s mission. The non-profit organization works with roughly 5,000 students in schools across the state to develop skills and experience they will need to succeed after high school, whether they choose post-secondary education or careers. All of the students face barriers to education, such as low-income or single-parent families. The specialists work with the students to build confidence and direction while giving them practical skills from building resumes to personal finances.

“A lot of them, their parents never graduated from high school,” said JMG spokeswoman Lisa Gardner. “They’re all going to be first generation college students.”

The annual conference is a chance for students to show what they’ve learned during their time with JMG. Students apply those skills at various workshops aimed at building teamwork and introducing students to potential colleges and careers. Students were given opportunities at public speaking, networking, and even skills like brick laying. There also were team-building exercises, like making a structure out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti.

The conference included a college and career expo that included a host of universities, such as University of Maine at Augusta and Kennebec Valley Community College, and businesses, such as Cianbro and Hodgdon Yachts.

Penson Bartlett, who has worked as a specialist with JMG at Mount View High School in Thorndike for the past 20 years, said the conference is a highlight of the year.

“It’s a great way to come together for the seniors to look back over their careers and to showcase their skills,” he said. “It’s all about pride. A lot of them are proud of being a JMG student. I love this day.”

Bartlett said his job is to make a connection with the students and help them grow personally and educationally.

“A lot of it is relationship building and being a resource for the student,” Bartlett said. “One of the things we promote is the ability to overcome obstacles in their lives.”

He said the program instills the students with confidence and gives them the skills to succeed. The students not only learn there is a future that includes a job they enjoy, but the specialists help the students map out how to get there. Bartlett, who left a job in law enforcement he enjoyed because he believed in JMG’s mission, said the specialists offer daily evidence of the importance of pursuing a career you love.

“We talk about finding something you’re passionate about,” Bartlett said. “There’s nothing worse than going to work for 30 years when you don’t like your job. You can talk to any specialist here. They love their jobs.”

The specialists not only try to help the students discover passion in their careers; they try to instill in the students a similar drive to help take care of their communities. Students are required to do community service projects throughout their time with JMG. Gardiner Area High School senior Ashley Weeks, who is finishing her third year with JMG, said she has documented nearly 100 hours of community service during that time. That doesn’t include countless other hours that went undocumented.

“It’s taught us to plan big events and work as a team,” she said.

Nelder, who said she became involved with JMG to improve her people skills, said the community events have been vital in achieving that goal. Nelder, who plans to attend Central Maine Community College, said she wants to work with children. She said the community service projects helped her realize she wants a job that helps people.

“It helped me give back to the community, and I get a lot of independence and responsibility,” she said. “Now I know I can pretty much do anything.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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