Aiming higher, youth and companies connect

ATLANTA—Ashley Calzada has never been on an airplane, but she and her two young daughters like to stand in the front yard and count them as they fly overhead.

“I’ve never actually gone out of state,” said the 22-year-old, who was born in California but moved to Georgia when she was a child. “I don’t ever have time or money to vacation in Florida like most people do. For vacation we go around here in the area, like to Six Flags or Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve never been more than an hour or two from here.”

Ashley Calzada, 22, and her daughters Sohanii, 6, and Shanell, 4, look skyward and count airplanes that fly over their house. Ashley said that aside from when she was born, she has never been more than two hours away from her home in the Atlanta. She dreams of traveling and someday visiting Florida. (Photo by Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks Newsroom)

Thursday morning, Calzada is on her way to the Atlanta Opportunity Hiring Fair at the Georgia World Congress Center with the hope of finding not just a job, but something that can grow into a career.

This is the seventh such hiring fair put on by the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which aims to help an estimated 4.9 million young Americans ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or employed. This translates to an estimated 110,000 young adults in Atlanta, according to Measure of America. Called “opportunity youth,” these young people face unique obstacles and are often disconnected from the individuals, institutions and experiences needed to help them succeed.

The day-long resource and hiring fair is put on by the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a national coalition of private, public and philanthropic organizations working together to connect companies with talented young people, which makes both stronger. In 2015, the coalition set a goal of hiring 100,000 opportunity youth by 2018, a goal that was reached in the first year. Three years and six massive hiring fairs later, the coalition has now reached 55 employers with the goal of connecting 1 million young people with jobs by 2021.

A record number of job seekers have registered for the Atlanta hiring fair – 4,750 as of Wednesday evening, including Calzada and Christopher Hughes, an aspiring veterinarian looking for a way to help pay for college. Attendees will rotate through stations to help them with resumes, hair, wardrobe choices and career counseling. There will be services to help young people overcome barriers to employment to reach their full potential, such as the Center for Working Families, that can help Calzada and other working parents with the unique challenges they face. There will be thousands of job interviews and hundreds of on-the-spot job offers from 40 companies like Starbucks, FedEx, Five Guys and Nordstrom.

Calzada has looked at the list of employers hiring at today’s fair and is particularly interested in seeking interviews with companies like Hilton, Hyatt and Alaska Airlines, that may someday offer her the opportunity to see more of the country, and maybe even the world.

“Plus, I would love to work downtown,” she said.

Calzada has been working hard. She earned her General Equivalency Diploma (GED) with help from WorkSource Atlanta and graduated from YouthBuild, a non-profit program to help provide education and job skills to young people. She has a temporary job doing administrative work at a warehouse.

Her resume is ready, as is her interview outfit – a black dress and sensible heels. She hopes all her preparation and hard work will pay off in an opportunity to make her life better and her world bigger.

 “I'm a lot more confident than I used to be,” she said. “I'm progressing. I'm getting things done – slowly, but I'm managing to do the best I can to produce for myself and my girls. I am somebody.”

In high school, she played soccer and participated in the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC). She wanted to join the Army. Then she got pregnant with her oldest daughter Sohanii, now 6. A second daughter, Shanell, followed two years later. Calzada thinks the Army still sounds exciting, but it’s no longer a practical choice for her busy life of work, school drop-offs and pick-ups, mealtimes and bedtimes.

Her motto for herself and her girls: “Stay strong, be positive, be yourself.”

She is now focused on things that push her outside her comfort zone – on rewriting the script on what she thinks about herself and her skills. She didn’t think she could speak publicly but learned to do so regularly in YouthBuild. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to afford a car or insurance, and now she has both. She didn’t think she was a people person, but she excels at customer service in her current job.

“I used to reluctantly answer phone calls and nervously talk to the customers who walked in. I didn’t think I was someone who could interact with people,” she said. “My biggest challenge is being comfortable with myself, but I feel more confident now. I’m like ‘What do you want me to do? I’ll do it.’”

Christopher Hughes, 20, has watched the 2015 documentary, “Where to Invade Next,” twice.

“It blew my mind both times,” he said.

In it, filmmaker Michael Moore travels to countries such as Italy, France, Finland, Tunisia, Slovenia, Germany and Portugal to explore how other countries deal with social and economic situations differently than the United States.

Hughes was fascinated to learn about the way other countries approach education, particularly the ones that allow citizens to attend college debt-free. This hit close to home for Hughes, who just finished his first semester at Atlanta Technical College and is looking for a part-time job at today’s Opportunity Hiring Fair.

Christian Hughes, 20, watches as his twin brother Christopher works on tying a tie at the home where they stay in a suburb of Atlanta. Christopher will attend the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative Atlanta Hiring Fair. (Photo by Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks Newsroom)

Like Calzada, Hughes is also a recent graduate of YouthBuild, and is hoping for a job that will make use of his new construction skills. He’d like to get through his first few semesters of college without taking on a lot of debt.

“I’d rather fall back in school and work until I can save up more to continue,” Hughes said.

Hughes and his identical twin brother, Christian, have been living with their great aunt about 30 minutes outside Atlanta while attending school. The brothers grew up in Detroit, and Christian – who also recently finished his first semester of college – is moving back soon in part to be closer to his girlfriend. “I just think I have to make my own moves right now,” Christian said.

“What makes him happy is what makes me happy,” Christopher said. “I support him no matter what – he’s my bro. Through and through. That’s my best friend.”

It’s a hard fork in the road for the twins, who share virtually everything – a goofy sense of humor, a love of video games and sci-fi movies, a knack for drawing and, well, a face.

“OK, who do we look like?” Christopher said, leaning forward on the couch turning his head slightly to the left and right. His brother Christian, was walking across the room but paused to wait for a guess.

Maybe the 44th president of the United States, but at 20 and in duplicate?

Christian snapped his fingers and smiled.

“Yes!” Christopher said, beaming. “That’s what they called us in high school – the Obama twins.”

He said their mother is his hero because, even though she got pregnant with them when she was a 16-year-old gang member, and had to drop out of high school, she also dropped out of gang life.

“She literally changed the whole influence of bad things in her life around just to put me and my brother higher,” Christopher said. 

When the twins were in school, Christopher said, they tried to fly below the radar.

“I never got in a fight in high school, in part because I was backed up by my brother,” he said. “We never wanted trouble. We just wanted to have fun.”

When he reached his senior year, he was startled to find out from a counselor that he had to make up a handful of classes to graduate. He spent his last year of high school taking a regular class load, plus retaking some classes online, and also working part-time at Little Caesars.

“I was on the verge,” he said. “It was very stressful.”

But he did it, and at the twins’ graduation party, their uncle told them he was moving to Atlanta soon and invited them along.

“It was like destiny calling,” said Christopher, who moved to Atlanta two years ago. Christian followed last year. The twins enrolled in school with the hope of transferring to a college with a pre-veterinary program and someday becoming veterinarians. Naturally, they are Animal Planet devotees.

“I don’t know anything about sports. A lot of dudes at my school probably think I'm boring, but I bet I know a lot of animals they don't know,” Christopher said. “They'll say 'Dude, did you see that lion?' and I can say, ‘That's not a lion, that's a tiger, and it's not just any tiger, it's a Bengal tiger.’”

The brothers developed a love of animals while caring for a steady stream of stray and adopted pets in their childhood, but none so impactful as Silver, their beautiful blue pit bull.

“He looked after us, and we looked after him,” Christian said. “He used to sleep in bed with us, this giant dude.”

In 2015 the family had to move to a place that didn’t allow large dogs, and Silver had to stay with a friend of a family member and the dog died in their care.

Christian Hughes holds a drawing of Silver, a beloved pit bull that died and deeply impacted the twin brothers. (Photo by Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks Newsroom)

“That just broke my heart,” Christopher said.

The loss of their beloved dog had a deep impact on the twins, who now dream of having a veterinary practice that could help heal animals and prevent them from suffering.

"In Detroit, you see a lot of stray animals,” Christopher said. “It was hard seeing animals struggle to survive because someone hasn't taken good care of them. “Today, the same shoes he wore to senior prom and high school graduation will carry him through the Opportunity Hiring Fair. His twin Christian, though moving soon, plans to attend the job fair as well to support his brother.

Christopher said he’s excited to see what happens. He’s worked hard to overcome nervousness, which he said is his biggest challenge, and to learn to speak publicly. But he is proud of his focus, and how far he’s come, and that he’s stayed true to himself the entire way.

 “I am a person of integrity,” he said. “I do what I say I’m going to do. I may not always be the fastest worker, but I’m a hard worker.”


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