CHARLESTON — Most weekday mornings find 15-year-old Samantha Perez chopping fruit and making sandwiches for the Coquille Indian Tribe’s Head Start pupils.
Preston Shea, 17, may be ripping old carpet out of a housing unit on the tribe’s Kilkich Reservation.
Other teens are stuffing envelopes, answering phones and chopping weeds.
They’re all part of the Kilkich Youth Corps, a summer program that exposes tribal teens to the working world. It exists because pursuing business opportunities isn’t the Coquille Indian Tribe’s only economic development priority. Cultivating tribal members themselves is just as important.
Driven from its ancient homelands and traumatized by a century of forced assimilation, the Coquille Tribe gradually is emerging from a legacy of poverty and discrimination. Achieving self-sufficiency is Goal 1 — both for the tribal organization and for individual members.
Youth Corps began in 2007, supervised by Don Ivy, who has since become the tribe’s chief. He wryly remembers, “It was an opportunity to keep some kids busy who otherwise would be running around causing trouble.”
It became much more than that. Ivy set out to teach the youngsters personal accountability and teamwork. They learned to pay attention, plan their day, and review their work at day’s end.
Clad in work boots, hardhats and orange vests, Ivy’s first crew spent the summer battling Scotch broom, washing windows, and helping out wherever needed. Ivy expected the kids to show up on time — and without ear buds.
A decade later, Youth Corps has broadened to include various summer jobs, but it remains focused squarely on workplace skills and life lessons. Preston Shea, a Marshfield High School senior, describes it as “a job before a job” — a chance to gain experience and learn from mistakes.
Shea is spending this summer doing maintenance for the tribe’s housing authority. After graduating next year, he plans to attend Western Oregon University and become a military police officer.
Youth Corps is not an entitlement. Participants submit applications and face a panel of interviewers. Preparation begins each spring at tribal Teen Night gatherings, where youngsters learn interview skills and how to dress for a positive impression.
“These kids interview better than 40-year-old people,” said Rachele Lyon, the tribal government’s human resources director.
Those chosen undergo standard background checks and employee orientation. They’re paid minimum wage.
Teens “age out” of Youth Corps after the summer of high school graduation. Some will go to college or trade school. Others go directly to work for the tribe, the Mill Casino-Hotel, or other local employers.
Wherever they go, their Youth Corps experience will strengthen their personal prospects — and the tribe’s collective vigor.
A leg up on the future
The Coquille Indian Tribe and its business arm, CEDCO, have several programs helping tribal members and non-tribal employees improve their skills and job prospects:
The Mill Casino-Hotel’s training manager helps Mill employees advance in their careers.
CEDCO helps employees seeking individual training, certifications and professional licensure.
A “Career Pathways” program targets tribal member employees who aspire to management roles, with both formal education and in-house training.
The Mill works in tandem with the Kilkich Youth Corps to offer summer jobs for tribal teens.
Tribal members attending college can apply for summer internships.
A micro-lending program makes business loans and personal loans to tribal members.
A “financial literacy” course, taught by CEDCO executives, offers basic personal-finance education to the children of all Mill employees.