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Getting a chance

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Entrepreneurs embrace “self-made” as a genuine stamp of success.

However, reaching the brass ring requires more than talent, drive and hope. It requires opportunity — something often missing in the lives of at-risk Boulder County youth.

Last November, Workforce Boulder County unveiled new access to that golden factor by re-launching the Workforce Investment Program for Youth.

The federally funded, state-regulated, county-administered program provides education along with job training and placement for low-income youth, ages 14 to 21.

But it also asks the local business community to do what it does at its best — to step up and take a chance.

JavaStop coffee shop owners Ellen and Kevin Galm did that this summer when they contracted 360 hours spread over three months with the county for Sunshine Brannigan, 17.

The deal could look like free labor, plain and simple, since the county program pays Brannigan $5.15, the federal minimum wage, for her weekly 20 hours of work.

But Brannigan’s unusually checkered past makes her an unlikely job or internship candidate on Uncle Sam’s dime or anyone else’s.

This teen needed more than sweat and luck to get down to business. After all, the homeless teenager spent the last eight months of 2002 kicking drug addictions — everything except heroin, she said — at a resident treatment center in Fort Collins.

Yet, she developed her taste for coffee there because she craved anything — from caffeine to cold medicine — that would make her “feel different” during detox.

When Brannigan emerged clean and sober, just before Christmas, her cultivated coffee taste had percolated into a coffee shop ownership dream — something WIP is helping her bring down to earth.

The Galms signed on and have since agreed to hire her as their sole employee, part time, when the county contract ends this fall.

“(Participating in the program) was a little nerve-wracking at first because we didn’t want to injure the customer service we were trying to build,” explained Ellen Galm, who bought the business with her husband last February.

But the couple ultimately considered Brannigan favorably for because of her can-do attitude and her honesty.

During her job interview, Brannigan confessed that she thought Kevin Galm made a sub-par mocha drink for her during a secret shopping trip she made to check the place out shortly after it opened.

“My biggest concern with at-risk youth is honesty, and when she told me that during the interview, I had a better feeling about about hiring her,” said Kevin Galm.

He made her another mocha to demonstrate his improved technique and later taught her how to do the same.

“Behind the counter, I realized it’s harder to make right than it looks,” she said.

Still, since Brannigan’s July start date, the Galms said, their business has benefited from her efforts and has become a stage for teachable moments.

Their protege has, for instance, learned that their start-up cash far exceeded her $10,000 guess — the espresso machine costs more than that, Kevin Galm noted.

Brannigan now also expects to be a little footsore at the end of her shift.

“The first day she worked here, she had only worked two hours, and she asked if we ever sat down,” said Ellen Galm. “And she may have grumbled about doing the 10,000th load of dishes, but they were clean.”

That determination got her through the county program’s screening, according to Erin Jones, Longmont’s county liaison.

“They weed themselves out,” she said of youth applicants.

Interested students, she continued, qualify on paper by low income and other documentable barriers to education and employment. Those hurdles include high school dropout status, homelessness, pregnancy, runaway or criminal history, teen parenthood and even run-of-the-mill skills deficiency or lacking work history.

But it’s ultimately their demonstrated attitude and motivation that gets them through the program’s door and, from there, into local business settings for skills training.

Because Brannigan stood out, JavaStop agreed to hire her on and the county has okayed additional federal funding to supply a used computer and underwrite an associate’s degree in business at Front Range Community College, where she started this fall.

But this opportunity is available to students coping with far less taxing circumstances, Jones said.

Natasha Gonzales, 16, lives at the Inn Between, Longmont’s nonprofit transitional housing development, just like Brannigan.

Though she has no history of substance abuse or homelessness trailing her, Gonzales had a blank resume until the program accepted her application and put her to work in the public sector, the city of Longmont’s Youth Services youth center.

From that 15-hour-a-week stint, which started in mid-August, she has already picked up more advanced computer skills — no one in her family owns a computer, she said — people skills and pride.

“It’s happier every day, knowing that you can go to work versus going home and just sitting there,” she said.

For more information, call Erin Jones at 303-651-1510, Ext. 162.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.