Sergio A. Ribeiro
11th Grade
Fauquier High School
Warrenton, VA
Virginia – 1st Place Winner

How to Share our Cake and Eat it Too

    In many ways, life is like a three-layer cake. There are those who work hard, achieve their goals, and rise to the top to enjoy life from the pinnacles. Some, favored by the Fates and a generous genealogy, have simply been planted, like decorations, directly on top. Those who live at the level of icing are able to survey things around them; a few look down and wonder how they might improve the lot of those living below. There are those who live in the middle layer, managing to survive, but not without daily struggles. What comes in goes right out. They need to meet next month’s mortgage and hope no one gets seriously sick, because the health care deductible could sap everything set aside for the one family vacation. 

    Then, there are those who live at the bottom layer. Their lives are heavy and burdened, and the weight of their circumstances prevents most from venturing beyond the crumbs to explore what life might hold for them. They fall away from an educational system that has been lackluster and largely irrelevant to their lives. Finding little or no employment, they live with little opportunity and even less hope. Life at the lowest layer often seems destined to repeat itself. 

    The Greater Washington region epitomizes this three-layer cake. Here, world banking powers and our nation’s leaders convene. Amidst the heart of our nation’s history are monuments and museums galore. Yet, there are areas pocked with unemployment, truancy, crime, and abuse. Truancy rates in the DC public high schools for 2009-2010 varied from 18% to a whopping 67%. (Ross, Oct. 2011) 

    Our youth are being squandered. The Brookings Institution found that in 2009, of low-income adults without a college degree in the District, nearly one in three was unemployed and not in school. (Jenkins, 06 Oct. 2011, The Washington Post) In today’s floundering economy, it can be difficult even for experienced and highly qualified professionals to find employment. But not all employment requires the traditional model of the four-year college degree. In fact, fewer than one-third of Americans attain the traditional, four-year college degree by their mid-twenties. (Ross, Oct. 2011) How can we bolster underprivileged youth to compete in a pool of applicants thrashing over the few jobs our anemic economy has produced? 

    The answer lies in the adage popularized during another era of economic hardship, World War II: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” With this philosophy, young entrepreneurs and local government can collaborate to improve the quality of life for residents in the area while empowering our youth. 

    Using government and corporate grants, we should open a technical training program for youth who might otherwise find themselves on the streets. Households would donate unwanted appliances – small or large – to TTYL (Technology Training and Youth Leadership) Center. A director and trained professionals or skilled technicians would be paid to staff the Center, work with, and teach, the youth to repair these items. In a way, it is a modernization of the apprenticeship practice of a bygone era. The household that has donated the item wins because the clutter of nonfunctioning appliances is reduced. TTYL could dispatch its youth workforce to go out and collect the donations. The Center wins because it can repair an item with the sweat equity of the young people, guided by the experienced hands of the staff. In cases where the item is beyond repair, the teaching staff could still use this donated item as an “open laboratory” to learn how that appliance works. 

    The price of fixing some appliances has become exorbitant. Many prefer to trash their obsolescent technology and invest in something new, whether they are televisions, toasters, washing machines, computers, or even cars. Hauled to junkyards, or disposal facilities, they await dismantling, rust, or the compactor. Instead, the youth of TTYL Centers could learn while they repair car bodywork, refurbish old computers, fix household appliances, and service lawn mowers, etc. While we reduce the cost of recycling things to scrap metal, we pay and educate our youth. We might not create top-dollar technology or repairs, but we would create an aspiring mechanic. Our youth win because they are learning vital hands-on skills as well as critical thinking skills that will help them troubleshoot. The environment wins because of reduced landfill waste. 

    The TTYL Centers would operate a thrift store to sell the refurbished products at deep discounts. This would help those of limited means, whether they are the working poor or the elderly or single parent households operating on a shoestring budget. The Center will provide life skills and can operate as a residential and vocational school. Some of the youth may want to train in culinary skills and will learn to run the kitchen and prepare the food. Some will be trained to clean and maintain the grounds – inside and out. 

    The Center’s cooking staff would go to local stores and participate in their “gleaning programs,” whereby produce and bread that are toward the end of their shelf life, but still perfectly safe and nutritious for consumption, are simply given away. This reduces the operating expenses of the Center, but just as importantly, it teaches everyone involved to “make do” with what is available. In summer months, the youth of TTYL might operate a garden in an abandoned lot or on the flat roof of a building. 

    The Center may not be profitable at first. Perhaps it may never be “profitable” in the business sense, but it would stir up a sense of community and frugality that would help our area work through a difficult economic time. It would keep our youth occupied while they learn real and relevant life skills – ones that they can take into the workforce, when they graduate out of TTYL’s training program. To attract youth, everyone who works in the program would be paid an hourly stipend because even though they are learning, they are also contributing. While we may not have a financial profit to show in the correct side of the ledger, if we can keep youth off of streets, away from drugs, violence, and other gang related activity, we reduce the burden on the public: from courts, juvenile detention centers, and even truant officers. We open the fists of the underprivileged, disconnected youth and remove the idle time they hold there and replace it with skills and hope instead. By paying them, we motivate them to develop their talents and use their minds. 

    What we do not spend on punitive measures, we save, and what we save, we spend in this far more profitable way, by pouring into young lives and reaping the rewards of productivity. We invest in them and show that learning and working hard really do pay. Giving them their first paying job would endow with them a sense of responsibility and could prevent other dangerous alternatives. One need only look to the troubled youth of Greece and the riots in England this summer to see what could happen when youth are left with no hope and no opportunities. It would give them a true sense of what ‘A job well done’ means and would provide the impetus to continue to achieve in life. 

    Because TTYL would be both a training and a teaching center, professionals would be invited donate their time and teach or give career advice. This would apply to unemployed or underemployed, or retired professionals as well. In exchange, they might receive a tax break and a meal, courtesy of the TTYL youth kitchen staff. This program could expand into “underperforming” schools so that the school funds are shared as well as the proceeds from the sale of the refurbished equipment. TTYL will aid those who have felt marginalized by the traditional schooling, revealing their talents and exposing their gifts in a way that the schools may not have. 

    As the program expands, some students can train to run the communications department to spread the word about TTYL to other underprivileged youth, the business community, and to other government agencies. Students could be offered scholarships and assistance to pursue an associate’s degree, culinary school, or higher vocational training. Some of the graduates who had initially joined the program might join the staff or branch out to outlying communities. 

    In an ever changing world of technology, we still need technicians, repair people, mechanics, cooks, cleaners, and childcare workers as much as we need our doctors and lawyers and teachers. We find our youth and pay them and train them. We bring them up, to the top of the cake, where they will look down and hopefully remember to help others as well.